Sword and Flame

(Isaiah 44:6-8, Daniel 7:9-14; Revelation 1:9-20)

In his 1920 poem “Gerontion,” T. S. Eliot wrote, “Signs are taken for wonders. ‘We would see a sign’:/The word within a word, unable to speak a word,/Swaddled with darkness. In the juvescence of the year/Came Christ the tiger.” That was, incidentally, seven years before his conversion to Christianity. It’s a striking passage. The world asks God for a sign and gets the Incarnation, which Eliot captures vividly—“The word within a word, unable to speak a word, swaddled with darkness”—which was quite a swerve for the world, quite unexpected, but of course familiar and comfortable to us now; and then we get the swerve, the jolt from out of left field: “In the juvescence of the year,” in its youth, its springtime, “came Christ the tiger.” Christ the tiger. That’s not what we expect; which rings true, because neither was he. That image brings us back up against a Jesus who doesn’t fit our storyline of how things are supposed to go.

What is the tiger? Well, here’s another line, later in the poem: “The tiger springs in the new year. Us he devours.” Christ? Well, uncomfortably, yes. In a number of ways. For one thing, it’s not biblical language, but it captures the way that the Spirit’s work of purifying our hearts sometimes feels threatening, as if it were an attack on us. That’s just part of the picture, though; Christ the tiger is Christ as judge, as the one who not only passes sentence but executes it. That isn’t Jesus as we like to think of him; increasingly, our culture wants to boil Jesus down to being all about love, and then leave that as vague as possible so that it’s nice and stretchy. That’s not how Jesus appears to John. We see Jesus here as the Son of Man of Daniel 7, and also as the Ancient of Days; we see him as the judge of all the earth.

Notice John’s reaction: “I fell at his feet as though dead.” Coming to grips with the holiness of God and the reality that he will judge the world has that effect; it tends to make it clear why the Bible says the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, because in the light of God’s glory, our evasions, rationalizations, and self-justifications are exposed as the inadequate things they are. When we see Jesus as the holy judge, we cannot deny that we deserve judgment.

And yet, we want to deny it, and so the modern reflex is to deny that we have to see Jesus as judge. After all, didn’t he say, “Don’t judge?” (He didn’t, actually, but good luck making that point.) Talking about judgment is negative, it’s Old Testament religion, it’s reactionary and intolerant and even un-Christian. Worst, we’re told, it’s a denial of the love of God, because the spirit of the age insists that love and judgment are incompatible; thus you have Rob Bell write a book arguing (rather mushily and without quite standing up for it) that no one goes to Hell, and what does he call it? Love Wins. Because if there’s such a thing as eternal judgment, that must mean love has lost.

But here’s the thing, and we talked about this last year on 1 John: that’s a human definition of love. That’s not God’s definition, and that’s not how he sees it. Look at the context of Isaiah 44, where our passage this morning is immediately followed by a polemic against idols and those who worship them; on either side, we see God’s promise of redemption, but we also see the warning of judgment for those who dishonor him. The two are woven together; his love for his people emphatically does not mean that he doesn’t care what they do or whom they worship or how they live. In truth, he judges them because he loves them; it’s because he loves them that he wants them to change their ways and repent of their sin.

Put another way, we might say that God judges us because we matter to him and what we do matters, because we are important enough to take seriously. If God never judged anyone and everyone ended up in heaven regardless, that would mean that this life doesn’t matter, and that what we do with our lives doesn’t matter. Our lives would be of no consequence—they would be inconsequential. Which means that we would be inconsequential. We would be unimportant, too insignificant to bother with. This is the logical conclusion of a judgment-free faith; and it leads ultimately to Hell breaking loose on earth. Part of the gospel message is that our actions have eternal consequence, because we are beings of eternal consequence—and that God loves us so much that he took the consequence of our sin on himself, that he who is our Judge might be our Redeemer. This is why the first and the last, the living one, is also the one who died and rose again. Judgment is morally necessary if anything meaningful is to be real, even love.

That’s a countercultural statement these days, but deep down I think we all know it’s true. On the one hand, we resist the idea of judgment because we don’t want to face the idea that we might deserve it; no one wants to be in the wrong, no one wants to be guilty as charged. On the other, we know the hurts we have suffered, we see the abuse of children, the suffering of war and the evils of tyranny, we see the damage we have done to our world, and how can all that belong in heaven? It isn’t possible to acknowledge all that and refuse to judge unless you reach a state of total indifference, or total despair.

The fact of it is, we cannot stand nowhere, and we cannot see the world from no point of view; we cannot believe without someone or something to believe in, and we cannot act without a reason and a goal—some idea that there is something good we can accomplish, or some way that we can make things better than they are. To insist that there is nothing and no one deserving of judgment as sinful, to hold that view consistently, we would be forced in the end to conclude that there is nothing and no one we can truly call good; and if that’s the case, life is little more than a ghastly joke. Otherwise, there must be a judge. The only question is who, and on what grounds, and by what right.

Of course, for all of us, there is the clamoring voice of the ego that insists that I am the center of the world, and thus I am the only one who has the right to judge; the trouble for the church comes when we give into that temptation without realizing it, when we start passing our own judgments in the name of God. That breeds a terrible spiritual pride because it blinds us to a critically important truth: the judgment of God begins with the people of God. We see that here. Christ appears to John as the judge of all the earth, he commands John to write to the seven churches, and where does he begin? Not with the judgment of the world, but with the judgment of those seven churches, both praising them and calling them to repentance. The judgment of God on sin begins with us.

If we are to speak with any integrity of the judgment of God, we have to begin there, in the reality that judgment isn’t just for everybody else. We do not face God as judge by faith in our own merit, figuring that he doesn’t need to judge us because we’re better than everyone else. Rather, we face him by faith that he is a loving God, that his judgment on sin flows from his love for us sinners, and that because of his love for us he took the full weight of that judgment on himself, paying the penalty for sin that we could never pay and serving the sentence of death that should have been ours. The one whose word is a double-edged sword and whose eyes are aflame is the one who died and rose again and holds the keys of death and Hell—for us. To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, who has made us a kingdom of priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and power forever and ever. Amen.

Christ the Center

(Exodus 3:13-15, Zechariah 12:7-13:1; Revelation 1:1-8)

You’ve probably been told that if you place a frog in boiling water, it will hop out, while if you put it in cool water and slowly heat it, the frog won’t perceive the danger and will ultimately let itself be cooked. I’m not sure where that idea came from, but I can’t think it was from anyone who knew much about frogs. Drop a frog in boiling water, it will go into shock and die. Put a frog in cold water, though, and it will try to jump away whether you heat it or not—frogs have absolutely no interest in sitting still for you. It’s a useful metaphor about life, but a lousy way to cook frog legs.

The funny thing is that the metaphor works because human beings often aren’t as smart as frogs; or maybe we should say that we aren’t as simple, that we’re more easily diverted and misdirected. Either way, we’re a lot more prone to miss threats, or fail to see them for what they are. We need someone to warn us of what’s happening, to call us to wake up and pay attention before it’s too late.

Which is, I think, why we have the book we know as Revelation; or much of the reason, anyway. I must admit, I feel a certain trepidation in beginning this series; Ecclesiastes says, “Of the making of many books there is no end,” and that’s certainly true of books about Revelation. I’m pretty sure there have been more commentaries written about this book of the Bible than any other; in many periods of Christian history, it hasn’t been close. There are a lot of opinions flying about, many with considerable force, and it’s easy to get caught in the crossfire—or to flinch and start ducking at every sound.

As such, I feel the need more than usual to lay out a thorough introduction to this sermon series, just to make it clear what we’re doing and where I’m coming from. In the first place, we’re not covering all of Revelation, so my apologies to anyone who’s disappointed to hear that. The core of this sermon series is something I’ve been thinking about doing for years, looking at the letters to the seven churches; obviously we’ll begin with chapter 1, and then we’ll conclude with chapters 4-5, which begin the main body of the book but also, I think, give us important context for the seven letters.

That said, even though I intend to stop at chapter 5, it’s important to let you know how I approach the book as a whole. Answer: the same way porcupines kiss—very carefully. In all seriousness, I’ve said more than once that we live between the times, that the kingdom of God has already come in Jesus Christ, but has not yet been fully realized; in Oscar Cullman’s famous image, we live after D-Day but before V-E Day. The war has already been won, but the battles are not yet over, because the enemy is fighting hard. We see this tension between “already” and “not yet” all over the New Testament, not least here in Revelation. This is important because we need to understand that “the last days” aren’t something way off in the future; biblically speaking, we have been in the last days ever since the birth of Jesus.

Third, one of the big disputes is where we look to find the fulfillment of the prophecies of this book: were they fulfilled in history, is their fulfillment still to come, or are they symbolic? For my part, I’d say the answer is “yes.” If you were here New Year’s Day, you might remember me talking about typological interpretation. For those who weren’t (or don’t), it’s something we see quite a bit as the New Testament authors, especially Paul, read the Old Testament. They find patterns and events and characters in the Old Testament which point to Jesus, not literally but by analogy. Thus Matthew draws on Isaiah 7:14, which was a prophecy given to King Ahaz of Judah and fulfilled in that time, and he applies it to Jesus. Does that negate the original fulfillment of the prophecy? No, but he sees that it was fulfilled again, in a greater way, in Christ.

I believe we have something similar in Revelation, only we’re standing in a different position in history. The church in John’s day expected his vision to apply to them, and they found connections. Was the prophecy fulfilled in their time? Not completely, no, but I believe they saw it partially fulfilled. Throughout the centuries, whenever the church has passed through trials, the people of God have turned to Revelation and found comfort and encouragement. I don’t think anyone will ever completely understand the great visions that fill this book until their final fulfillment comes, and that it will be a great blessing and comfort to the church in that day—but that doesn’t invalidate the fact that it has been a great blessing and comfort to the suffering church all the way along, as John keeps assuring the people of God, “I’ve seen the back of the book, and we win.”

Fourth, how we understand the historical setting of Revelation makes a big difference in our interpretation of the letters in chapters 2-3. Scholars disagree on this, too, since disagreement is what keeps them employed, but I think we can safely trust the witness of the early church that Revelation was written in the 90s AD, late in the reign of the Caesar Domitian.

Over the course of his reign, Domitian was increasingly addressed as “Master and God” both by those who sought his favor and by those seeking to avoid punishment, and increasingly came to demand divine homage; this probably has something to do with the expansion of the imperial cult during his reign, including increased persecution for non-Jews who refused to worship Caesar, and the establishment of a formal site of Caesar worship in Ephesus, complete with a huge statue of Domitian.

Interestingly, the push for that temple came not from Domitian but from the social elite of the province of Asia Minor, which included Ephesus and the other churches to which John wrote. They wanted to gain favor and influence with Rome, and they used Caesar worship to make a great display of their loyalty to Rome and devotion to Caesar. Naturally, then, they became less and less tolerant of those who refused to worship Caesar; and so while there’s no real evidence that Domitian himself sought to persecute Christians in any major way, intolerance and persecution were rising in the provinces.

In addition to the political pressure on Christians, there was also cultural and economic pressure, through the institutions of the trade guilds. You didn’t have to participate in a guild to be in business, but they were the social networks for the various trades—and each had its patron deity, which you were expected to worship at least once a year. These patron gods, along with Caesar, were given the credit for the empire’s health and prosperity; refusal to show proper gratitude was considered bad citizenship.

What we have, then, at the time of John’s writing, is a situation in which there has been sporadic persecution of Christians—most likely why John is on the island of Patmos—but nothing major; yet the pressure to compromise the faith is building, and significant persecution looms in the near future. An old bullfrog might be smart enough to jump out before the water boils, but the church doesn’t see the crisis coming. John’s role is to warn them. And understand this: that doesn’t mean telling them to hunker down or get ready to protect themselves. In a sense, it means telling them not to do either. Instead, it means encouraging them to stand strong against the culture, knowing full well that doing so will bring the wrath of the culture and government down on their heads.

That’s a lot to ask of anyone; which is why John begins the way he does. He’s not primarily calling them to stand against something, but rather to stand for something—or rather, someone: Jesus Christ. It’s easy to begin by decrying the culture and the state of the world, or pointing out how bad this is or that is, but John doesn’t do that. He begins at the center of our faith, with the one who is the reason for our salvation and should be the reason for everything we do. He begins with praise and promise, giving glory to Jesus who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, who has made us a kingdom of his priests, and who is coming again to complete the victory he has won.

Christ is the center, and the reason, the beginning and the end; everything else John is going to say, and everything else we may say about our faith and life, flows from that truth. Is it worth resisting the world, is it worth going against the flow, even if it means persecution, even if it means death? Yes. Why? Because of Jesus.