Monday, October 26, 2009

"The Lamb's Drama: His People, His World, and His Justice"

Scripture Readings: Revelation 15:5-16:11; Revelation 16:12-21

What if God created this earth, and gave us life on this earth, for the purpose of sheer delight; for our own sheer delight, and for God’s delighting in our delight? What if the very reason for our existence was that we should love and be loved, and that our life should be marked by beauty, and truth, and faithfulness, and kindness, and justice, and faith, and a holy liberty to pursue true happiness for ourselves and others? What if we were created for a life marked by loving relationships in marriage, and family, and friendship; in which our thoughts, our words, and our actions would not be unworthy, would not miss their mark, would not be misunderstood, would not grow weary, would not be tempted or replaced by resentments, and suspicions, and fears, and angers, and conflicts, and aggression?

What if all this happiness and delight was not intended only for us, as individuals, but also for the whole human race? Families, communities, cities, cultures, nations would all enjoy God’s purpose of delight and love. All groups of people, on every level would function together, and relate to each other, in this delight and love.

This is what God intended for human life. But what do we see? We see a world that has become what it is because our first ancestors, in the Garden of Eden, thought that they would be happier if they were able conduct their lives without a partnership with God.

The story of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, which Adam and Eve ate at the Devil’s invitation, meant that they thought that by ignoring God’s warnings, they could acquire enough knowledge and wisdom and ability to be self motivated, and self directed, and self fulfilled. They made self their new God. They decided they would be happier if they served themselves, just as the Devil had chosen to serve himself. (Genesis 3:1-19)

I am sure that they thought they would still give God a share of themselves; but they would decide for themselves just what that share would be. They were sure that this change would not cause too much harm, once God got used to the new arrangements and accepted it.

Instead, what they got was what we see, and it caused great harm indeed. Not because God was angry, but because God was right.

God was right that it would not be good. God was right that it would bring death into the world: death to the body, death to the heart and the heart’s affections, death to wisdom, death to love and kindness.

We don’t have to look around us to see this deadly, hurtful drifting and shifting of the spirit. We can just look within ourselves.

There was a young Scottish writer in the 1650’s named Henry Scougal, who wrote this about humility. But it also describes what we see in ourselves when our lives are not lived in partnership with God. He writes: “That which makes anybody esteem us, is their knowledge or apprehension of some little good, and their ignorance of a great deal of evil that may be in us; were they thoroughly acquainted with us, they would quickly change their opinion. The thoughts that pass in our heart in the best and most serious day of our life, being exposed to public view, would render us either hateful or ridiculous…” (“The Life of God in the Soul of Man” p. 128)
All of these changes in the world as God intended it to be, and in ourselves as God intended us to be (the loss of the power of true love, and kindness, and delight, and justice, and faith), are the real catastrophe of the world.

The Book of Revelation, in the sixteenth chapter (16:10), tells us about a royal throne that stands in this world. It is called “the throne of the beast”. This throne stands for the independence of the human race from God.

Right now, this throne is invisible and spiritual, although its effects are highly visible and practical. But the Bible warns that a time will come when one government and (perhaps) a single person, or a single team of people, will decide for others what love, or kindness, or delight, or justice, or faith will be allowed.

How should God respond to all this; the world as it is, and as it shall be? We have seen so far (in the Book of Revelation) that God responds to this through our own prayers and witness and fellowship. God responds by designing a world that also responds to the misuse and evil that goes on in it, with warnings that make people stop, and think, and take stock of things. If God is almighty love, all these responses are good, but other things must follow.

The author Austin Farrer (a friend of C.S. Lewis) wrote this: “Delight is naturally kindled by delight and God, who loves his children’s love, delights in their delighting. How, then, is he disposed towards the causes of unwholesome sadness…Does he not detest them? And what is the fate of things which earn the detestation of almighty love? Is it not that they would be abolished? God’s hatred or wrath is, indeed, nothing but this, a simple desire for the abolition of its object.” (The abolition of the sources of this sadness) (Quoted in “From the Library of C.S. Lewis” p. 129)

We are absolutely right when we look at the world around us, or right beside us, or within us, and we say, in great distress: this cannot go on. The Bible promises that God sees this even better than we do; only his vision, and his patience, and his plan are greater than ours. Still, God hears what the talking altar in John’s vision says. Its words are the prayers of God’s people, the prayers of the church: “Yes, Lord God Almighty, true and just are your judgments,” (16:7) and he will judge.

The fifteenth and sixteenth chapters of the Book of Revelation tell us about the anger or wrath of God putting an end to the great sadness and evil caused by the human declaration of independence from God. There are seven bowls of wrath or anger. Seven is the biblical number that represents perfection, and so God’s anger, which aims at abolishing of evil, is perfect.

We don’t understand how anger could be perfect, because we don’t understand anger very well. Our own anger is confusing. Human anger tends to be destructive in a way that only makes things worse. In the letter of James we read: “The anger of man worketh not the righteousness of God” or “Man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires.” (James 1:20) Anger can do good; but it is tricky, and it can create a lot of collateral damage.

My elementary school had two sixth grade teachers. Mine was Mr. Stroscheiner. The other class had Mrs. Stone. I remember Mr. Stroscheiner as a screamer. He had no middle range of anger. When he was angry, he would scream, and turn red. Mrs. Stone was known to throw things at her students when she was angry. God is not like either Mr. Stroscheiner or Mrs. Stone in his anger.

The Book of Revelation shows the plagues of God’s anger taking place in the world of nature. We are part of nature. We are part of God’s larger creation. We are not some alien presence. We are a natural part of it all, just as much as any forest, or wolf, or river, or salmon.

We are part of creation and it is part of us. We respond to it and it responds to us. That is how God made it.

In the Book of Revelation it may look as if God punishes his creation, and uses that punishment to punish the human race. This is not what really happens. In Revelation, the four living creatures represent the world of nature, to which we belong, and they are the instigators and suppliers of God’s wrath. In Revelation 15:7 it is world of nature, in the form of the four living creatures, which gives the wrath of God to the angels, to pour out on humanity.

Nature isn’t a flunky of ours, nor is it a flunky of God. Nature is a friend of God, an agent of God, which works upon us in God’s behalf. It directs our thoughts toward God. It gives us our home and work.

It is designed by God to be our friend, as well as his, but also it is designed to turn on us when we become ultimately destructive and self-destructive. But this is the role of a friend; to be angry with you when he or she sees that you are going wrong. (For “destroyers” see Rev. 11:18)

When human beings see that nature and the creation are gifts from God, they take good care of them and the resources of nature last. A good farmer is a good steward of the land, to keep it fertile and fruitful, and the land takes care of the farmer and his family.

In the end, the throne of the beast, the human authority that declares independence from God the creator, will mess up the creation itself, and the creation will turn against it. In so many ways, human power tries to regulate its own self-preservation. It justifies its power by claiming to know what is best, and its interference (in our times, using the best standards of science and technology) often only makes things worse. In the last days, this drive to regulate and control will overwhelm the world.

The fifth angel pours his bowl of the wrath of God upon “the throne of the beast” and his kingdom is plunged into darkness. (Rev. 16:10) But the kingdom of the beast is in darkness all along, because it tries to live and rule human life apart from God. The darkness will just be shown for the fraud that it is.

Human power is always tempted to pretend to possess a wisdom, and competence, and ability which it does not have. In the last days, the human authority, or the antichrist, will declare human independence from God on the basis of its own wisdom, and competence, and ability.

It will offer humans the freedom that comes from this independence. It will reward those who support it. It will try to control, and coerce, and threaten those who do not agree with it. In the end, it will be shown for the fraud that it is. It will all break down. But the terrible thing is that it will break down in darkness, and violence, and destruction.

Revelation is clear that there will be a final crisis and conflict. It calls this Armageddon. In Revelation it is not clear who fights whom. But, in a way, this doesn’t matter. The power that pretends that it can solve all human problems will create its own final crisis.

The demon spirits that come out of the mouths of the dragon (which is the Devil) and the two beasts (which are the power of the antichrist) will go out and draw all the nations of the world to battle. The quest for independence from God will create death and destruction just as it did in the Garden of Eden, but it will engulf the whole world.

My dad made wine for a hobby. Wine takes advantage of a natural process that has elements of destruction in it. The yeast ferments the juices of grapes that have been crushed. It is a kind of self regulated spoilage. The process of fermentation produces alcohol which prevents the spoiling of the juice by changing it into something else. But as the yeast produces more and more alcohol it guarantees its own destruction. Even though alcohol comes from the yeast, it is also is poisonous to yeast. At a certain point the yeast will produce enough alcohol to kill itself. In a similar way, evil (if left to its own devises) will kill itself.

In God there is life. There is no life outside of God. Anything that tries to leave God leaves life. Anything that leaves God can only feed on itself, feed on the life that God has given it, until there is almost nothing left.

In the grace of God, rebellion against God is its own poison. In the wrath of God, God stands aside and lets the rebel destroy himself; even if that rebel is the greater part of a world.

The truth is there will be unimaginable destruction. The world, as we know it, will come to an end. It will be a different world after that.

So this is what Revelation shows us about the wrath of God. Creation itself will turn upon the destroyers of the earth. The great rebellion that has brought so much sorrow and suffering to the world will implode in great destruction.

In the middle of this destruction, the Lord says: “Stay awake!” (Rev. 16:15) This is his message to us, or to those who will come after us. This is his word to the church so that it will be awake, and the world of that time will hear it say: “Yes, Lord God Almighty, true and just are your judgments.”

In the last days, when the dangers and the destruction seem to grow irresistibly, some of the evils will not affect everyone equally. The first plague is said to only harm those “who have the mark of the beast and worship his image.” (16:2) This shows that there will be Christians in that world who will not have the mark of the beast.

Jesus said: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Matthew 18:20) This is the essence of what the church is. The fact that there will be people who do not have the mark of the beast and who are call upon by Christ to “stay awake” is the sign that people like us will be on the scene in those days.
What will it mean for the church to stay awake in those days? It will mean the same thing that it means for us now.

Revelation tells us that Christians have the mark that is not a number but a name. It is the name of the Father and of the Lamb upon them. (Rev. 3:12; 7:3; 14:1) We are labeled. We are owned by God. And that ownership is readable by others.

God’s ownership of us is the kind of ownership that is supposed to be visible and audible. Others are supposed to be able to see and hear Christ in us. This happens only when we stay awake.

Our presence in this world is the most awesome and mysterious way that Christ himself comes into the world. He comes through us.

Even when God seems the farthest away from the affairs of this world, as it may seem in the last days, God wants people present in this world who are awake; who can see what he is doing, and give witness to it. There needs to be people who can understand what everything means and say, “True and just are your judgments.”
There must be someone, some body of people (the church) who can go through what everyone else goes through, and still keep faith. When everyone else is cursing, someone needs to be blessing.

There must be someone, some body of people (the church) who can share the sufferings of a sinful world, just as Christ, himself, did. Then we can represent the essential love of a God who sent his Son to die for the sins of the world to a world bent on its own destruction. Even if there seems to be no one who will believe us, we have to be Christ to that world and give them our testimony of the good news.

There are always such people present in the world, even as God is present. If the last battle is “The Day of God Almighty”, as Revelation says it will be (16:14), then there is good reason for us to be there to see what God will do.

We can be such people because it is the Lord’s nature to make his people awake. If we know him we are amazed by him. Amazement is a state of awakening. If we know that he gave himself on the cross for our sins and for the sins of the entire world, then we are awake to the needs of the world. We will know what we need to say and do.
He gives us what we need to live with an endurance that is patient, and faithful, and passionate. He gives us what we need so that when everything else seems to be shaken, we will be steady.

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