Archive for July, 2009
I don’t like moving. I don’t like the packing. I don’t like the hauling. I don’t like the unpacking, sorting, and finding new places for everything in my new place. I don’t like moving. But perhaps the thing I dislike most when it comes to the whole moving experience is the obligatory call I have to make to the cable guy. You know how the conversation goes. I call and say, “I’ve just moved in to a new place and I would like someone to come out and hook up my cable TV and internet.” “Okay,” the associate responds in her best cheerful tenor, “We can schedule an appointment for two weeks from today between 8 am and 5 pm.” “Two weeks from today? Don’t you have anything sooner? And can’t you give me a more specific window of time than nine hours?” I ask. “No sir,” comes the polite reply. “I’m sorry, we can’t.” And so I wait. And after two weeks, the day finally comes. And I wait again. And I wait and I wait and I wait. And finally, at 4:30 in the afternoon, the cable guy shows up. And 15 minutes later, he’s finished. All that waiting for 15 minutes of labor. How frustrating.
After reading about a vile prostitute named Babylon in Revelation 17 (cf. Revelation 17:5) and how she became “drunk with the blood of the saints, the blood of those who bore testimony to Jesus” (Revelation 17:6), we now read about this woman’s demise in today’s reading from Revelation 18. And her demise is a spectacular one. A chorus laments:
“Woe! Woe, O great city, O Babylon, city of power! In one hour your doom has come! Woe! Woe, O great city, dressed in fine linen, purple and scarlet, and glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls! In one hour such great wealth has been brought to ruin! Woe! Woe, O great city, where all who had ships on the sea became rich through her wealth! In one hour she has been brought to ruin!” (verses 10, 16-17, 19)
Babylon, the ultimate symbol of power, excess, and greed, has been utterly obliterated. As another chorus sings in the following chapter, “The smoke goes up from her forever and ever” (verse 3). But did you catch the pattern of the laments in chapter 18? Each lament begins with a double woe, accompanied by a reckoning of how long it will take to destroy her: “one hour.” One hour to for this giant of a spiritual harlot to meet her demise? That seems awfully swift.
One of the promises that we Christians receive concerning God’s judgment is that it will be swift and irrevocable. As Paul elsewhere writes, “For you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, ‘Peace and safety,’ destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape” (1 Thessalonians 5:2-3). Thus, in John’s vision, the enemies of God are destroyed in a mere hour while the people of God, in that same time frame, receive their anxiously anticipated salvation.
In the mean time, however, it can sometimes feel as though Christians are left waiting for a cable guy who has given them a painfully vague time frame as to when he will finally arrive. Jesus promises only that he will come “soon” (Revelation 22:20). Can’t he get any more precise than that? Actually, he can’t. For as Jesus himself admits, “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Matthew 24:36). But rest assured, even if it’s at 4:30 in the afternoon, Jesus will come. And when Jesus does come, the wait will most certainly be over. For his judgment will only take a moment.
Thankfully, while we’re waiting for Jesus to come, we need not sit around in our houses all day like I had to while waiting for the cable guy. Indeed, Jesus doesn’t want us to sit around all day waiting for him. Instead, he wants us to use this precious time to share his precious message of salvation. This is why Jesus declares, “This gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (Matthew 24:14). Jesus, not desiring the destruction of sinners, is waiting as long as possible for us to share his message of grace before he ushers in his End. So don’t just sit there, share Jesus! After all, who knows? Jesus might just be waiting for you to share him with someone today. I hope you will.
I find people who mix their metaphors, whether intentionally or unintentionally, to be quite entertaining. And people do this more often than you might think. Ray Romano, the American actor best known for his work on the sitcom “Everybody Love Raymond” is reported to have said, “Your dirty laundry is coming home to roost.” Is that because the chickens dirtied the laundry? Or how about the renowned English author Agatha Christie, who once penned these words: “One has to tidy up the loose ends.” Isn’t that, “Tie up the loose ends”? And then, leave it to a politician to really stick his foot in his mouth, as former vice president Al Gore did. Gore once quipped at a press conference, “We all know that a leopard can’t change his stripes.” And indeed that’s true. Mainly because a leopard doesn’t have any stripes. He has spots.
You would think that a writer as astute, observant, and careful as John would never commit such a cardinal literary sin like mixing his metaphors. But in Revelation 17, this is exactly what he does.
John sees a vision of a prostitute riding a beast who has emerged from the waters. This beast, John continues, has seven heads and ten horns (cf. verses 1-3). Now clearly, this language is to be interpreted metaphorically, as John himself later explains. He even “decodes,” as it were, bits and pieces of his metaphorical language for us: “The seven heads of the beast are the seven hills on which the woman sits” (verse 9). So this woman is sitting on some sort of seven-hilled landscape. But then John continues, “They are also the seven kings” (verse 10). Wait! I thought the seven heads of the beast were supposed to symbolize seven hills. How can they also symbolize seven kings?
With such a labyrinth of imagery, it’s no wonder that the book of Revelation can confuse and frustrate many. So let me see if I can help decipher some of John’s metaphors, mixed as they may be. The prostitute seems to represent those once faithful followers of God who turn away from him in apostasy. Indeed, the sad image of a harlot is common imagery in the Old Testament for Israel, who regularly turns away from God to follow her own sinful desires. As the prophet Isaiah says, “See how the faithful city of Jerusalem has become a harlot! She was once full of justice; righteousness used to dwell in her – but now murderers” (Isaiah 1:21)! The beast out of the sea on which this woman sits seems to symbolize the Roman Empire, especially since this beast’s seven heads symbolize the “seven hills” (verse 9) on which Rome famously sits. The “seven kings,” then, could very well be some of the wicked Roman emperors with whom John would have had to contend as he wrote Revelation. For John had been exiled by these same emperors to the remote island of Patmos because he stood up for his faith in Christ when these emperors demanded that all subjects of the empire worship them as gods. In the end, however, although these are my educated guesses as to what this imagery in Revelation 17 represents, they are still only my educated guesses. In other words, I cannot, in the final analysis, decipher every one of John’s apocalyptic metaphors with precise specificity.
More than once, I have met a person who was convinced that he had every last one of the beasts, horns, kings, bowls, plagues, scrolls, and trumpets deciphered and decoded with the precise specificity that so stubbornly eludes me. And, oddly enough, all of these images from John’s book just happened to correspond with the news stories he had read in the New York Times earlier that morning! “The end of the world is at hand,” he would confidently, and even arrogantly, announce to me. Usually, I would respond with only a knowing glance. And then I would wait. Because while he was furiously readying himself for “apocalypse now,” I just continued on with my daily activities, content to leave the Lord’s return to the Lord. And eventually, the timetables he had placed on his predictions of doom and gloom expired. And he was proven wrong. Perhaps his precise specificity wasn’t so precise after all.
One of the reasons I believe John mixes his metaphors is to try to prevent us from engaging in interpretations of his writings which would foolishly and haughtily seek to decipher his metaphors with precise specificity. For John’s metaphors are not meant to be precise predictions, but general descriptions of the sad state of wickedness in the world and of the glorious promise of salvation with Christ. Sadly, this has not detoured many from their foolish, and so far completely wrongheaded, interpretations of John’s visions.
I cannot interpret John’s apocalyptic mixed metaphors specifically. I can only speak to them generally. And that’s okay. I think John intended it that way. But this I do know and this I do believe with amazing specificity: That “the Lamb will overcome evil because he is Lord of lords and King of kings – and with him will be his called, chosen and faithful followers” (verse 14). No matter what may come of John’s mixed metaphors, this I know: I will live eternally with the Lamb. And that makes me happy as an oyster. Or is that a clam?
I am not a very competitive person, often to the chagrin of my wife, Melody. For example, if we are playing a game of Scrabble one evening, Melody will glance at her tiles and then study the board with steely eyed resolve, determined to use her “Q” and “X” in one word while also landing on a “Triple Word Score” space. But then, there’s me. “THE,” I’ll say in a monotone drone. “T-H-E.” “You’re not even trying!” Melody will respond. “It’s no fun to play with you unless you try to beat me!” But I’m just not a very competitive person. The thrill of a win feels muted to me while the pain of a loss feels blunted to me.
I am not a very competitive person. That is, unless I’m playing 42. This Texas domino classic captured my heart in seminary and has held it ever since. I’m not sure what it is about this one game that brings out my competitive edge, but I am fierce and focused when I play. I intensely study each and every domino, carefully strategizing my victory. And if I lose…well, let’s just say I can be less than a gracious loser, especially when I lose after betting on what I was certain was a winning hand. But sometimes, no matter what I do, no matter how carefully I strategize, and no matter how hard I try, the dominoes do not fall properly. And I lose. And I am not happy about it.
In Revelation 16, we are introduced to some very competitive people. But these people are not trying to compete at a game of Scrabble or even at a game of 42. No, these people are trying to compete against God. They stubbornly, unabashedly, and wildly defy God’s commands, trying to defeat God’s righteousness and usurp his authority. But no matter how hard they try, they keep on losing. And they are not happy about it. John writes, “They cursed the name of God…but they refused to repent and glorify him” (verse 9). They refused to admit, “I have lost at my game of wickedness. God is the winner. And I should declare him as such through repentance and worship.”
Finally, in one last ditch effort to defeat God, the wicked gather “together to the place that in Hebrew is called Armageddon” (verse 16). Without a doubt, much ink has been spilled over the famed Mountain of Megiddo and the impending gloomy and gory battle that will one day take place there. But even before this final cosmic war, because of its location at a strategic point along the Via Maris, an important ancient trade route, Armageddon has already served as the unfortunate site for countless monumental battles. As the biblical scholar Robert Mounce writes, “Armageddon is one of history’s famous battlefields, having witnessed major conflicts all the way ‘from one fought by Thuthmosis III in 1468 BC to that of Lord Allenby of Megiddo in 1917” (Revelation, 301). Indeed, this site is substantially stained with the blood of the fallen. Biblically, this is the same site on which Elijah competed with the prophets of Baal in a contest to see whose God was the true God (cf. 1 Kings 18:16-40). Elijah won handily.
For all the battles which have taken place at Armageddon, this final eschatological one is of a different sort. The wicked gather for war against God. Their swords are drawn, their bows are strung, their catapults are mounted, and their intentions are clear: To defeat the Lord and his righteous ones. But then, before a single arrow is fired and before a single sword is wielded, God announces, “It is done” (verse 17)! The battle ends before it can even begin. John’s description of the battle at Armageddon, then, is a far cry from the depictions of bloody carnage given to us in many popular Christian, which turn out also to be fictional, descriptions of this war. For no matter how hard they try, the wicked do not even have a chance at winning this war. They lose. And it is done.
The battle at Armageddon should offer us, as Christians, great comfort and hope because technically, it’s not even a battle. Rather, it’s a simple declaration of victory: “Christ has won over wickedness! It is done!” So when you face wickedness which harangues your morale and stresses your soul, remember that the battle has already been won. Wickedness doesn’t stand a chance. For our God has competed and won. And that’s a victory we can all be happy about.
I’ll never forget my first visit to the first congregation I served at as a pastor. It was a church in a little town outside of Corpus Christi called Portland. I had hit the road early on a Tuesday morning to make a three and a half hour drive from Austin, where I was staying at the time, to Portland, my soon-to-be home. It was a pleasant drive, first down 1-35 from Austin to San Antonio, and then down I-37, headed toward Corpus Christi, until I got about twenty five miles north of the city. All of a sudden, dark and ominous clouds appeared on the horizon. And as I sped closer to my destination, I realized that the weather was about to take a turn for the worse.
And then, it happened.
The lightning flashed, the thunder rolled, the heavens opened up, the floodgates released, and the rain came pouring down. It was one of the most stunning displays of precipitation I had ever witnessed. I could barely see a foot in front of my windshield. Those last few miles took me a full hour to drive. And as I drove them, I thought to myself, “Is this some kind of hurricane? I’m not so sure I want to live here!”
Thankfully, my opinion soon changed. For the next time I returned to Portland, the sky was blue, the weather was pleasant, and as I sped over a picturesque causeway from Corpus Christi to Portland, I was enraptured by the sailboats drifting through the harbor and the maritime birds soaring up above. “This is more like it,” I thought to myself. “Now this feels like home!”
In our reading for today from Revelation 15, we see a storm of sorts, described as “the seven last plagues” (verse 1), which are representative of the unfortunate trials and tribulations that accompany the end times. Notably, during these stormy plagues, the temple in heaven is “filled with smoke from the glory of God and from his power, [so that] no one could enter the temple until the seven plagues of the sever angels were completed” (verse 8). In other words, much like a blue sky in a thunderstorm, there are portions of God’s counsel which remain somewhat shrouded during this spiritual storm.
The writers of Scripture have long noted that, in some sense, God remains hidden from us as we live our lives on earth and in sin. Paul describes it thusly: “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways” (Romans 11:33). “Inscrutable.” Now there’s a word you don’t hear very often. It is the negative form of “scrutinize.” Paul us saying that, try as we might, we cannot scrutinize or analyze or standardize the way in which God works. His ways often remain dingily shadowed behind the smoke in Revelation’s temple. And yet, it will not always be this way.
Just like the clouds over Corpus Christi eventually broke and the storm eventually cleared, so too will the smoke from the temple one day dissipate and God in his full glory in righteousness will be revealed. Indeed, not only will the smoke from the temple clear, the temple itself will tumble! As John writes concerning the end of time, “I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple” (Revelation 21:22). And then later, “We will see his face” (Revelation 22:4). We will one day see the entirety of God.
In the mean time, however, we’re still in the storm of plagues. Indeed, you experience this every time a financial crunch hits, a relationships breaks, or a loved one dies. And it is during these times that we wish we were able to peer into the smoke of God’s temple and scrutinize his job performance. But, frustratingly at times, we cannot. But the smoke will indeed dissipate. The temple will indeed tumble. And we will indeed see Jesus face to face. And when we do, we will declare, “Now this feels like home!” I can’t wait.
Perhaps it’s just part of the irreparable fissure between guys and gals. The other night, my wife Melody and I were sitting on our living room couch and I, remote in hand, was doing what any self-respecting, red-blooded American male would be doing at a time like this. I was channel surfing. Now, truth be told, I actually don’t do a lot of channel surfing. I usually only flip back and forth between two types of channels: news channels and sports channels. But on this particular day, the news was all Michael Jackson, a story which by this point had tired me, and the sports channels were saturated with Major League Baseball games which, although okay, are not merely as captivating to me as NBA or College Football games. Thus, in a quest for something interesting to watch, I ran the whole gamut of TV channels when I stumbled across the Discovery Health channel.
I’m still not sure what kind of surgery it was on the Discovery Health channel, but whatever it was, it was really cool. Scalpels, scissors, stitches, and lots of blood. Immediately I became transfixed. “Wow! That’s amazing,” I declared. Melody, however, was not so awed by the gruesome sight. “Yuck!” she exclaimed. “I don’t want to watch this. Turn the channel! Turn the channel!”
As I said, perhaps it’s just part of the irreparable fissure between guys and gals. Show me blood and I find it fascinating and interesting. Show my wife blood, however, and she turns away her head in disgust and disdain.
With that in mind, I suppose it’s really not surprising that the book of Revelation was written by a guy. For this apocalyptic narrative certainly has its share of blood. And today’s reading from Revelation 14 is no exception.
In what is yet another vision of God’s judgment of the world on the Last Day, John sees an angel executing divine wrath on those who do not believe in Christ. This angel is commanded:
“Take your sharp sickle and gather the clusters of grapes from the earth’s vine, because its grapes are ripe.” The angel swung his sickle on the earth, gathered its grapes and threw them into the great winepress of God’s wrath. They were trampled in the winepress outside the city, and blood flowed out of the press, rising as high as the horses’ bridles for a distance of 1,600 stadia. (verses 18-20)
On the Last Day, the enemies of God are trampled by God’s sickle of wrath. Such a punishment is fitting since, prior to their final judgment, they wickedly trampled on the saints of God (cf. Revelation 11:2). But now their judgment has come and now their blood will flow, rising as high as a horse’s bridle, approximately 5 feet high, and flowing a distance of 1,600 stadia, approximately the length of Palestine from north to south. Now that’s a lot of blood! Even with my affinity for surgery shows on the Discovery Health channel, I’m not so sure this is a sight I want to see. And it most definitely a judgment of which I don’t want to be a part.
Why would John paint such a gruesome picture of the Last Day and God’s judgment? To serve as a warning for those who do not trust in Christ for their salvation. It is especially interesting to note the location of where this judgment takes place: “outside the city” (verse 20). With a touch of poetic irony, this turns out to be the same place where blood once flowed from a Savior named Jesus: “And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood” (Hebrews 13:12). The question that John is prompting us to ask, then, is, “Whose blood do we want to flow outside the city? Jesus’ blood for the forgiveness of our sins or our own blood at our impending destruction?” Sadly, many people, rather than relying on Jesus’ blood, prefer to give their own blood as recompense for their sins. But for those of us who trust in Christ, this need not be the case. Our blood need not flow. For Jesus’ blood has already flowed for us.
As much as I might like to watch doctors operate on others on the Discovery Health channel, I dread the notion of being operated on myself. I’m happy to watch other people’s blood, just not my own. Thankfully, for my salvation, I will never have to watch my own blood flow. For I have seen the blood flow from my Savior on the cross for my forgiveness. And that’s the only blood I need. And that’s the only blood you need too.
In 2007, one of the most captivating displays of raw talent ever seen was aired on the primetime hit “America’s Got Talent” in the voice of Terry Fator. Terry is ventriloquist, now residing in Las Vegas, where he signed a contract worth a reported $100 million to be the headliner at the Mirage Casino. He rose to fame after winning “American’s Got Talent” with his turtle puppet singing a rendition of Roy Orbison’s “Crying,” a song which is not easy to perform even when you can move your lips!
I have always been fascinated by ventriloquists, most likely because I’ve never been able to throw my voice. Although I’ve tried my hand at ventriloquism, my lips inevitably manage to move and I sound more like a grunting gorilla than a seasoned entertainer. So much for my Vaudeville career.
In our text for today from Revelation 13, we are introduced to a strange character: “Then I saw another beast, coming out of the earth. He had two horns like a lamb” (verse 11). Throughout John’s vision in Revelation, the image of a lamb has served to refer to Christ, “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). But this lamb seems to be of a different, if not even of a sinister, sort. And indeed he is. For John continues, “He had two horns like a lamb, but he spoke like a dragon” (verse 11). Satan, it seems, is trying to play the part of the Lamb of God. He “performs great and miraculous signs” (verse 12) and even dresses himself up like Christ. But Satan is not a very good ventriloquist. He may look like Christ, but he can never sound like Christ. For the lies and blasphemies that Satan utters can never sound like the truth and grace that Christ declares.
Jesus warns his disciples, “For false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect – if that were possible” (Matthew 24:24). John’s vision in Revelation 13 is the fulfillment of Christ’s prophecy in Matthew 24. And Christ warns that these false christs – these demons who look like lambs, but in reality are dragons – will try deceive even the elect saints of God.
How are we to keep ourselves from being deceived by such deluding demons? By listening to what they say. For although Satan may be able to fake Christ’s appearance, he can never fake Christ’s voice. As Jesus himself promises, “My followers will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice” (John 10:5).
Sadly, there are many false teachers in the world today. And, just as Jesus and John warn us, they teach untruths and half-truths about Christ and his gospel. Some teach that all paths lead to God rather than the path of Christ alone. Others teach that if you just have enough faith in God, you will no longer have troubles or trials of any kind. Still others teach trumped up doomsday versions of the apocalypse and the end of the world, meant to strike fear rather than to engender faith into the hearts of those who hear them. These are all false teachings. For these all contradict what the Lamb of God says in his Word. And no matter how lamb-like these teachers may look, it’s what they say that counts.
Are you following the voice of the Lamb of God alone, or dissenting voices that do not parrot the voice of Christ? As Christians, we are called to listen and to learn from the voice of the Lamb of God alone. This is why we are to read the Scriptures. This is why we are to pray. This is why we are to receive wise counsel from trusted Christian friends. So that we never get taken in by a counterfeit Christ. And, by God’s grace, we won’t. For by God’s grace, we know the Lamb’s voice. My prayer is that you hear, follow, and obey his voice today.
In 1890, the then thriving Anchor Buggy Company, the largest producer of buggies in the world, published the ad pictured here. What this ad has to do with horse drawn buggies, I have no idea, but nevertheless, it featured what has become a world-famous optical illusion. Who is this woman? Is she young and in her prime or old and in her twilight years? It depends on how you look at it. Of course, one should not miss the caption under the picture: “You see my wife, but where is my mother-in-law?”
Anchor’s business was never the same after that. After all, you never mess with a mother-in-law!
In our reading for today from Revelation 12, we see a strange sight:
A great and wondrous sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth. Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on his heads. His tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that he might devour her child the moment it was born. She gave birth to a son, a male child, who will rule all the nations with an iron scepter. And her child was snatched up to God and to his throne. (verses 1-5)
What is John talking about here? A heavenly woman? A male child? A fierce dragon? Perhaps we know this story better as it’s told by Luke:
In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to his own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. (Luke 2:1-7)
The story of Revelation 12 is the story of Luke 2. It is the story of Jesus, told from a heavenly perspective. But from a heavenly perspective, it looks a little different. Rather than a quiet stable, we have a roaring dragon. Rather than a meager-looking infant wrapped in swaddling clothes, we have a conquering child wielding an iron scepter. Much like the Anchor Buggy Company’s famed optical illusion, the story of Jesus has two sides: The side we see here on earth and the side seen by the angels in heaven. From an earthly perspective, it looks merely like a non-descript birth. From a heavenly perspective, however, it is revealed as a cosmic battle between God and Satan. It just depends on how you look at it.
Many times, the course of our lives can seem bewildering, confusing, and mystifying. Many times, we are left wondering where we are going, what we are doing, and how we will survive the heartaches and challenges of this world. It is during these times that we need to remember that our earthly perspective is not the only perspective there is. There is God’s heavenly perspective as well. And God’s heavenly perspective is this: That we have “overcome Satan by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of our testimony” (verse 11). From God’s heavenly perspective, no matter what trial, tragedy, or trouble from Satan we may face, our victory is secure, for we have overcome the dragon by the blood of the Lamb. And so, when our earthly perspective leaves us feeling despondent and defeated, never forget that from God’s heavenly perspective, the outcome of our trials is sure and certain: We have and we will overcome. And that’s the way we should look at it.
“Can I get a witness?” Everyone from Marvin Gaye to Run DMC has spoken these words. The origin of this phrase dates back to nineteenth century African American Christian congregations. In the midst of a culture that sorely oppressed them, African Americans would often rise to offer testimonies concerning God’s work in their lives. After hearing their sometimes moving, sometimes miraculous, sometimes breathtaking stories, the pastor would then ask his congregation, “Can I get a witness?” With these words, the pastor was asking his congregation to praise God, to affirm his work, and to support their brothers and sisters in Christ, since many of them worked as slaves and were victimized by heinous discrimination and marginalization. It never took the congregation long to respond. “Amen!” they would boisterously shout. For they, in the midst of their trials, desired to be a witness and support to those testifying.
Revelation 11 opens with a story of oppression. The enemies of God are “trampling on the holy city for 42 months” (verse 2). The interpretations of what these 42 months refer to are legion. Especially notable, however, is that this time period mirrors that of the drought experienced by Israel under the reign of the wicked king Ahab. As the prophet Elijah declares to Ahab: “As the LORD, the God of Israel, lives, whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word” (1 Kings 17:1). Jesus later specifies the precise length of this drought: “In Elijah’s time, the sky was shut for three and half years and there was a sever famine throughout the land” (Luke 4:25). Three and half years, of course, is 42 months. Thus, for three and a half years, John says, there is a time of misery similar to that experienced by Israel during its terrible drought. But in the middle of this terrible drought, there appear two witnesses. As God declares:
And I will give power to my two witnesses, and they will prophesy for 1,260 days, clothed in sackcloth. These are the two olive trees and the two lampstands that stand before the Lord of the earth. If anyone tries to harm them, fire comes from their mouths and devours their enemies. This is how anyone who wants to harm them must die. These men have power to shut up the sky so that it will not rain during the time they are prophesying; and they have power to turn the waters into blood and to strike the earth with every kind of plague as often as they want. (verses 3-6)
The actions of these two witnesses are remarkable. They can call forth fire to devour God’s enemies, much like Elijah did with pagan prophets in 1 Kings 18:22-40. They can also call for drought conditions just as Elijah did with King Ahab’s Israel. Not only that, but they can also turn waters into blood and call down plagues, intentionally echoing Moses’ actions in the exodus. In the midst of oppression, God gives his people a witness to his great work. Indeed, he even gives them witnesses. That is why John calls them “lampstands” in verse 4. For their mission is to shine God’s light in a dark world.
Perhaps you are in suffering oppression and tragedy right now. Maybe you are living through a period of “42 months.” Indeed, many scholars believe this reference to 42 months simply refers to the time span between Jesus’ ascension into heaven and return on the Last Day, during which the people of God are regularly persecuted and oppressed by those who hate them. If you know the sting of persecution and oppression because you are ridiculed at work or scorned at school or ostracized even by your own family because of your faith, then you probably want a witness. You probably want someone to recognize, affirm, and sympathize with you in your pain. You probably want someone who can relay to you God’s great works. You probably cry out, “Can I get a witness?” The good news of Revelation 11 is that God’s answer is, “Yes. I will give you Christian brothers and sisters – lampstands in a dark world – to stand beside you and celebrate my might works. You can have a witness. Indeed, you can even have witnesses. You are not alone.” Praise be to God.
I am a man who loves a good burger. And so last week, when some friends invited me to lunch at Bigz Burger Joint, voted one of San Antonio’s best burgers, I could hardly resist. Unfortunately, however, no matter how much I may love a good burger, a good burger does not usually love me.
For several years now, I have fought a weak stomach. Greasy, spicy, or just otherwise tasty foods do not sit well with me. And Bigz, a restaurant, which caters to folks all over south Texas with a hankerin for red meat, definitely knows how to make ‘em greasy, tasty, and even spicy if you want to throw some jalapeños on your ground round. And so, when I walked into the barn-styled burger joint, complete with butcher table on its tables, I had a choice: a delicious burger which would surely upset my stomach or the more sensible choice of a salad, which would be good for both my weight and digestive tract.
I needed some Tums that evening.
In our reading for today from Revelation 10, as in Revelation 5, we are introduced to a heavenly scroll:
Then the voice that I had heard from heaven spoke to me once more: “Go, take the scroll that lies open in the hand of the angel who is standing on the sea and on the land.” So I went to the angel and asked him to give me the little scroll. He said to me, “Take it and eat it. It will turn your stomach sour, but in your mouth it will be as sweet as honey.” (verses 8-9)
John, in his vision, hears a voice from heaven offering him a “little scroll,” perfectly portioned to be bite-sized for the apostle to ingest.
This imagery of “eating” the sweet word of God is not unique to John. The Psalmist declares, “How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth” (Psalm 119:103). The prophet Ezekiel, in a vision which surely forms the basis for John’s encounter with this heavenly voice, is told, “‘Son of man, eat what is before you, eat this scroll; then go and speak to the house of Israel.’ So I opened my mouth, and he gave me the scroll to eat. Then he said to me, ‘Son of man, eat this scroll I am giving you and fill your stomach with it.’ So I ate it, and it tasted as sweet as honey in my mouth” (Ezekiel 3:1-3). Indeed, the very Hebrew word for “meditate” is hagah, meaning, “to chew.” And so, when the Psalmist opens the Psalter, “Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers. But his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night” (Psalm 1:1-2), he is literally encouraging his reader to “chew” on God’s Word as he reads the Psalms. Thus, it is not unusual that John should be given a scroll to eat.
But there is catch to this scroll. John informs us: “I took the little scroll from the angel’s hand and ate it. It tasted as sweet as honey in my mouth, but when I had eaten it, my stomach turned sour” (verse 10). The Greek here for “my stomach turned sour” is much more colorful. It reads, “The scroll pricked my colon.” Yikes! Talk about a case of colitis!
The meaning of this sour scroll is simply this: Although the Word of God may be sweet to John’s taste, it will not be sweet to the unrepentant people with whom he shares it. Indeed, they will not take kindly to, and even ferociously reject, John’s preaching.
Sometimes, sharing God’s Word is not easy. Sometimes, God’s Word is even met with ferocious rejection. Will you, like John, be willing to share the scroll of God’s truth even when others respond sourly?
Pastor Bill Hybels talks about the value of sharing “the last 10 percent” with someone. Oftentimes, Hybels says, when we need to have a difficult conversation with someone about a sin they are engaged in or about a change they need to make, we will tell them 90 percent of what they need to hear. Unfortunately, the last 10 percent, which, not coincidentally, is usually the toughest 10 percent, normally goes unsaid. This 10 percent is the sour scroll. It is the word that may be met by rejection or even retaliation. And yet, we are called to share even this last 10 percent.
So today, is there anyone with whom you need to have a difficult conversation? I know it’s challenging – and even frightening – to have a conversation that could turn sour, but as Christ’s disciples, we are called to share God’s truth. All of God’s truth. I hope you will.
It seems that if you want to make a good horror movie, a fine place to start is with a terrifying title. And what could be more terrifying than the title, “Attack of the Giant…” and then you name the foreboding creature which will surely spell humanity’s demise? In a moment of idle curiosity, I googled “Attack of the Giant…” Here’s what I found: “Attack of the Giant Leeches,” “Attack of the Giant Squid,” “Attack of the Giant Baby,” “Attack of the Giant Gila Monster,” “Attack of the Giant Shrews,” “Attack of the Giant Ants,” “Attack of the Giant Spiders,” “Attack of the Giant Woman,” “Attack of the Giant Crabs,” and, last but not least, “Attack of the Giant Midget.” Wait a second. That last one doesn’t even make sense. It’s kind of like enduring an attack from a jumbo shrimp. But I digress.
I must confess that on first read, Revelation 9 sounds like a scene out of a low-budget, b-list horror movie:
And out of the smoke locusts came down upon the earth and were given power like that of scorpions of the earth. The locusts looked like horses prepared for battle. On their heads they wore something like crowns of gold, and their faces resembled human faces. Their hair was like women’s hair, and their teeth were like lions’ teeth. They had breastplates like breastplates of iron, and the sound of their wings was like the thundering of many horses and chariots rushing into battle. They had tails and stings like scorpions, and in their tails they had power to torment people for five months. (verses 3, 7-10)
What in the world could John possibly be talking about here? Is he planning on producing a corny horror flick: “Attack of the Giant Locusts”?
John’s imagery of these giant locusts isn’t nearly as esoteric and absurd as it first sounds. For the plagues which accompany the trumpets often find their origins in the famed ten plagues which God sent against Egypt. So it is with these locusts. Just as locusts once attacked the godless Egyptians (cf. Exodus 10:1-18), locusts again attack the godless people of the earth. And just as God protected the Israelites throughout the course of the ten plagues (cf. Exodus 8:22-23), God also protects his people during this devastating disaster (cf. verse 4). The character of the locusts in Revelation, however, seems to be much different from the character of the locusts in Exodus.
John’s locusts, it appears, are demonic in nature. For they rise from the Abyss (cf. verse 2). Thus, these locusts are not to be taken as literal physical creatures, but as harrowing demons who sadistically bring trouble, trial, and tribulation on those who refuse to trust in the Lamb of God. And just like Pharaoh, who had a “hardened heart, and would not let the Israelites go” (Exodus 10:20), the people who suffer under the weight of these apocalyptic locusts “still do not repent of the work of their hands; they do not stop worshiping demons” (verse 20). With great irony, then, John informs us that the very demonic locusts who assail these unrepentant sufferers are the very demons who these unrepentant sufferers continue to worship. They worship the very things which harm them.
I often wonder how often we don’t do the same thing as the sad people who suffer under these oppressive locusts. I wonder how many times we don’t worship the very things which harm us. The bottle robs of us our liver. And yet we worship at the altar of our local bar. The career robs us of our family. And yet we worship at the altar of our desk. The lover robs us of our integrity. And yet we worship at the altar of our bed. We worship the very things which harm us. And Satan’s demonic locusts get the best of us.
Is there any harmful thing which, in spite of your better sense, you nevertheless worship? Now is the time to repent and worship the true God who loves you, protects you, and saves you. Now is the time to declare freedom from the locusts that lacerate your soul. Now is the time to worship not the locusts of sin, but the Lamb of salvation. For he promises “to turn back the enemies who would wound you and instead be with you. And when the Lord is with you, you will never again will have fear any harm” (Zephaniah 3:15, paraphrase). And that’s a promise no locust could ever make.