Monday, November 9, 2009

The Lamb's Drama: His People's Warfare and the Golden Years

Scripture Readings: Revelation 19:6-9; 19:11-20:6; Revelation 20:7-15

We must know that the Book of Revelation has a lot to teach us about our lives today, because it is the point of view of the Bible that we have been living in the last days ever since the birth, and life, and death, and resurrection of Jesus. We have been living in the last days ever since the time of the apostles. The forces at work in our world today, are the same forces that were at work in those days. The same forces that will be at work in the final crisis, before the return of Jesus, are the very forces that are at work today; even if that future crisis is a long way off. (1 John 2:18)

Remember how we have seen that the Book of Revelation is not a complicated time-line. It doesn’t move in a straight line. It is an album of pictures, like a wedding album that shows the same events over, and over, and over, and over again from many different angles. If you are a guy who has ever been shown such a wedding album, you know what I mean.

And this fits in a surprising way, because the Book of Revelation really is about a wedding; just a very, very scary wedding. There are a lot of photos of the prenuptials of a very complicated wedding where it looks like they won’t be able to carry it off. Maybe it would be like being part of a lavish winter wedding, when suddenly an ice storm closes in, and it looks like nature is trying to kill you.

The Book of Revelation is about the thing it calls the wedding of the Lamb and his bride. The Lamb is Jesus, and the bride is us (along with all Christians, from all times and places).

The grand finale of the Book of Revelation is the wedding feast, the wedding supper. We all know that this is the best part of the wedding, except for the honey moon, because all that planning, all that struggle, all that stress, all that battle against the forces of chaos, are behind us, and now (looking back) everything was all perfect.

The Book of Revelation has a lot to teach us about our lives, because it has a lot to do with teaching us about salvation. Salvation is what it means to have Jesus take you over to God’s side. It means living a life rooted in the peace and nurture of God. It means living a life in which our nature has been essentially changed in its direction, from living for ourselves to living in harmony with God, and with others, and finding our true self.

It means having a new life because our old life has been overcome by the love and the forgiveness of God poured out in Christ who lived, and died, and rose as an offering for us. Because we have been overcome by the love of God in Christ we see ourselves, we see others, we see our world, and we see our task in the world, with new eyes and a new heart.

The Book of Revelation teaches us two things about this new life (this journey we call salvation). It tells us that salvation is a war and that salvation is a feast. It is a war with (not against) Jesus; and it is a feast with Jesus.

We see a picture of Jesus going off to war. Jesus is the rider who “is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and makes war….his name is the Word of God.” (Rev. 19:11-13)

When we are joined to Jesus, we have joined a war; his war. There is one scene of that war, earlier in the Book of Revelation (Rev. 12:7-9), that pictures a battle in heaven between the Archangel Michael and the Dragon who is Satan. This is only one picture of the war of Jesus against our sins, and death, and the Devil That battle shows what he did for us on the cross. The picture of Jesus and his army riding forth on white horses is part of that same war as it still goes on to this day.

Because Jesus died to share his goodness with us, we see the first rider dressed in red and ourselves, riding beside him, dressed in white. His red is his blood. Our white is his righteousness given to us.

In a sense our riding with Jesus is also our riding against ourselves. Because we still cherish our temptations, and our own injustices against others, and our own deceits. We cherish our own hypocrisies and selfishness. When we fight alongside Jesus we fight to finish the conquest of our own lives. But we also fight for Jesus against the evils of this world. We fight to win others, and to win the world, and to overcome the world.

We must do this because God’s love helps us see just how much is really wrong with the world. So much in the world is broken, and so many people are broken by this world.

There is an odd thing we need to notice about this war. Just how does Jesus fight in this war? John mentions the sword in Jesus’ mouth; and he gives Jesus the name “Word of God”. Jesus often fought with his mouth and his word.

Paul, the apostle, fought the same kind of war. He often tells us that his words are his weapon of choice. Paul says, “For though we live in the world we are not carrying on a worldly war, for the weapons of our warfare are not worldly but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every proud obstacle to the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ.” (2 Corinthians 10:3-5)

In the gospels, Jesus often used the sword of his mouth. Once, in the synagogue in Capernaum, Jesus met a man possessed by and demon, and the weapon Jesus used to do something about this was the powerful sword in his mouth. With this sword Jesus did not kill the man, but set him free. (Mark 1:21-28) When Jesus crossed the Sea of Galilee, and met the man possessed with a legion of demons (an army of demons), Jesus went to war against them with the sword in his mouth. He defeated them and he saved the man. (Mark 5:1-20) When Jesus was being arrested, and Peter tried to resist, and used his sword to cut off the ear of the high priest’s servant, Jesus shouted, “No more of this,” and he touched the wounded man’s ear and healed it. (Luke 22:51)

If we thought that we were really going to war with Jesus, how would be use the sword in our mouth? And how would we make our lives correspond to this?
The world we live in is not a neutral place. If God is a God of salvation, we must fight to win this world. We are at war. But it is a completely different kind of war than we might expect. There is no brutality in Jesus’ war. We fight in a life giving war.*

The early Christians thought that this picture of Jesus dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and with the rest of us dressed in white, was a picture of the strange war of sharing the good news of the cross and the love of God with the all nations, and with every person. They thought this at the very time when the world was trying to kill them. And they went out against that world with nothing but the sword of a message of the love of God.

John tells us that this sword in the mouth of Jesus will one day speak something that will put an end to the resistance and evil of this world. We cannot foresee what that will be, or how it will work. Whatever he says will be so strong and so counter to the world, as we know it, that this world, as we know it, will cease to be. It will be a grand, “No more of this!”

In this war, we ride alongside Jesus. In such a world, in such a war, this is the only safe place to be. We ride beside Jesus; he in his red, and we in our white; he in grace and mercy, and we needing grace and mercy. Whether in these days, or in the final days, this is the only way to stay mounted and go forth.

I must bring in one other part of the picture album that has some very strange pictures that say one more thing about this war. I must do this because so much attention gets paid to this part of the album. There is a part of the album called “The Millennium.” Millennium means a thousand. John describes a period of a thousand years (although that number may only be symbolic of a long, long time; maybe longer).

We have read that, when the next to the last great battle is fought, Satan will be bound for a thousand years (Rev. 20:2). We also read that God’s people (all who belong to Christ the Lamb) will reign and rule with Christ for that same thousand years.

Members of all nations (Jews and non-Jewish people) who belong to Christ will “live”, John says. (Rev. 20:4) This “living” means that those who belong to Christ will be touched by the resurrection, before anyone else is.

For those who believe, who are alive at the return of Christ, this living will be the thing we call the rapture. (Matthew 24:30-31; 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17) It will be like being resurrected without dying. It means being changed into an immortal life, into a spiritual life.

This tired, old world will work differently because it will become the kingdom of God. Those who survive the great crisis and destruction of the last days, and the fall of the world powers as we know it, will have Jesus and us living among them for a long, long time.

It will be a time of abundance. The Old Testament speaks of a time when: “The wolf shall lie down with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and al little child shall lead them.” (Isaiah 11:6) “They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain, for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” (Isaiah 11:9)

This old earth will be like a paradise, and Jesus will rule, and we will help him. The next strange thing is that (as wonderful as this must be) we are told that when Satan is set free, after that long, long golden age, “he will deceive the nations in the four corners of the earth”. (Rev. 20:8) People from all over the world will rebel against Jesus. The nations will try to come against Christ and against his people. Then they will be stopped, and then the whole universe will be unmade, and a new creation will come into existence.

Here is what I think about this. First of all, God loves this world. Nature itself plays a part in our salvation and in waking us up to our need for God. God will honor this world that served him so well with the gift of a golden age. God will give this world a well deserved rest. It would be like a wealthy philanthropist finding an elderly couple who had worked hard all their lives and had nothing to show for it, and giving them a fortune to live on and a condo in Hawaii, out of sheer grace.

The second reason for the millennium (as I see it) is that God will use it to answer his objectors who claim that they would believe if only they could see the evidence of a visible management style; that is, if only they could see what he was doing, and see him doing it. And so he will he will do that, and yet they will not necessarily believe.

We can see this problem in ourselves. It is so easy for us to place the blame for our condition outside ourselves. We claim that if our nurture were better, and if the conditions of our life were better, we would be much better people. We try so hard, at any cost, to ignore and avoid our honest inner need for grace and rebirth. We try so hard to deny that our sin truly comes from ourselves.

The millennium will tell the story of ages and ages of God gently and lovingly wooing the human world. It will show ages of fervent courtship by an abounding and reigning Christ who will not convert anyone by force and gives us every chance, and so he will be left with a world of unconverted people....well maybe not that bad.
At least, it will be a world of people who are not too different from us. The only difference will be that (with all the visible and tangible care they will receive) they will have no opportunity to really express what is in their heart of hearts. They will represent something called “a cloistered virtue”; a goodness that is good only because they never had the chance to do what they really wanted.

It will be as true in those future days, as it is true today; we must be born again. We must be born from above.

The spiritual warfare, during the millennium, will be the war for thankfulness; thankfulness for living in a world where people are wooed day after day, and year after year, by the loving courtship of God. But that is the truth of the world even now.

The other side of salvation is the feast. Salvation means going to war alongside of Christ. Salvation means feasting with Christ; with Christ as your host. We will talk more about this next time.

The Lord’s Supper is a meal of the return of Jesus. We do it to proclaim his death until he comes. We do it remembering that the one we are expecting to come again is the one who has died for our sins on the cross, and who did this because God so loved this world. (John 3:16) He gave us this meal because he knew that there is nothing we need so much in this world as to be welcomed, and fed, and nourished by him.

*For the section in italics, I owe a particular debt to Eugene Peterson in his book “Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John & the Praying Imagination” p. 164f. The focus of this sermon on salvation as war and feast also come from the same book, Chapter 11 “The Final Word on Salvation”.

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