Sermon for April 28th, 2013
14See, a day is coming for the Lord, when the plunder taken from you will be divided in your midst. 2For I will gather all the nations against Jerusalem to battle, and the city shall be taken and the houses looted and the women raped; half the city shall go into exile, but the rest of the people shall not be cut off from the city. 3Then the Lord will go forth and fight against those nations as when he fights on a day of battle. 4On that day his feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives, which lies before Jerusalem on the east; and the Mount of Olives shall be split in two from east to west by a very wide valley; so that half of the Mount shall withdraw northwards, and the other half southwards. 5And you shall flee by the valley of the Lord’s mountain, for the valley between the mountains shall reach to Azal; and you shall flee as you fled from the earthquake in the days of King Uzziah of Judah. Then the Lord my God will come, and all the holy ones with him. 6 On that day there shall not be either cold or frost. 7And there shall be continuous day (it is known to the Lord), not day and not night, for at evening time there shall be light. 8 On that day living waters shall flow out from Jerusalem, half of them to the eastern sea and half of them to the western sea; it shall continue in summer as in winter. 9 And the Lord will become king over all the earth; on that day the Lord will be one and his name one.
Revelation 16:13-16; 19:11-16, 19-21
13And I saw three foul spirits like frogs coming from the mouth of the dragon, from the mouth of the beast, and from the mouth of the false prophet. 14These are demonic spirits, performing signs, who go abroad to the kings of the whole world, to assemble them for battle on the great day of God the Almighty. 15(‘See, I am coming like a thief! Blessed is the one who stays awake and is clothed, not going about naked and exposed to shame.’) 16And they assembled them at the place that in Hebrew is called Harmagedon.
11 Then I saw heaven opened, and there was a white horse! Its rider is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. 12His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems; and he has a name inscribed that no one knows but himself. 13He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is called The Word of God. 14And the armies of heaven, wearing fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. 15From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron; he will tread the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. 16On his robe and on his thigh he has a name inscribed, ‘King of kings and Lord of lords’.
19Then I saw the beast and the kings of the earth with their armies gathered to make war against the rider on the horse and against his army. 20And the beast was captured, and with it the false prophet who had performed in its presence the signs by which he deceived those who had received the mark of the beast and those who worshipped its image. These two were thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulphur. 21And the rest were killed by the sword of the rider on the horse, the sword that came from his mouth; and all the birds were gorged with their flesh.
One Last Epic Battle
In the larger family of Christianity, Presbyterians have a reputation for being the resident nerds, geeks, intellectuals and eggheads. I think that's why I've always felt so at home in this denomination. But as much as I love gathering with you each Sunday, on this particular Sunday there is another gathering of nerds and geeks that calls out to me powerfully. When I leave church today, I will be headed to the Marriott Hotel by the Airport to take part in the Sun City Sci-Fi convention -- a gathering of science fiction fans, collectors and celebrities that includes our very own Andrew Donaldson, who will be displaying some of the awesome Star Wars costumes he has made. I'm taking my son, Grady,(who is quite the emerging sci-fi geek himself) and both of us are so excited we can hardly contain ourselves.
Some people have a hard time understanding what the big deal is about science fiction, and why so many people get worked up into such a frenzy over conventions like these, attending them dressed-up like Klingons, aliens, and androids. Now...I could probably explain what it's all about in great and vivid detail over the course of several hours. But I've learned that explanations of this sort have a mysterious effect on non-geek audiences: Their eyes glaze over, their brains turn into mush, and about three minutes in they become complete and total zombies. And any good sci-fi geek knows how dangerous it is to monologue in front of a zombie.
But there is one thing, one feature of all good science fiction novels and movies, that I'll risk sharing with you today--so if at any point in the next five minutes, you feel the early symptoms of zombification, please refrain from eating the person next to you.
So...here it is, and this may actually be the number one feature of science fiction that captures the hearts and minds of the geekish masses: At some point, near the end of every really good sci-fi story, there is an epic, cosmic, battle to end all battles. The lines are clearly drawn between the forces of absolute good on one hand, and absolute evil on the other. Nothing less than the complete and total fate of the earth, the galaxy, the entire universe, hangs in the balance. In other words, it's kind of a big deal. Oh, and one more thing: In the end, the forces of good almost always prevail, defeating the forces of evil.
This "last, epic battle" is not exclusive to Science Fiction, of course. It shows up in fantasy literature and many other types of stories, too. Many ancient religions have their own version, too: In the Norse religion of the Vikings, it is is called Ragnarok -- the great battle between the Gods and the Giants at the end of the world. In Hinduism it is the battle of Keekatpur, where the God Vishnu returns to earth riding on (remember this) a White Horse and carrying a sword to lead an army of faithful Hindus and defeat evil in the world. In the Jewish religion, it is called "The Day of the Lord," a battle described in today's Old Testament passage from Zechariah and also found in Ezekiel.
In our own religion, Christianity, it is of course the famous battle of Armageddon, described in the book of Revelation. The fascination with this "last battle" is so strong in our own culture that people who have never cracked open a single page of the Christian Bible, who have never set foot in a Christian church will still instantly recognize the name Armageddon along with its connection to the end of the world. In verses 14-16 of today's New Testament reading, we are told that "the kings of the whole world" will assemble for battle "at the place that in Hebrew is called Harmagedon." The first part of that word, "Har" (or "Ar," as it gets pronounced in Latin and early English) is the Hebrew word for "Mountain." So, Mount Megeddon. Of course, there is no Mount Megeddon anywhere that we know of in the Ancient Middle East. There is a small town in Israel called "Megiddo," but it's in the middle of a very flat plain. Whether or not this is what John of Patmos had in mind when he wrote Revelation...I don't honestly know. And I'm pretty sure that despite 2,000 years of speculation, no one else does either.
But I do think that here, at last, John is finally talking about something he expects to happen in the future. For the past three weeks, we've seen how John uses symbolism and imagery to describe events from his past, or to describe events happening all around him in his 1st century present. So how do we know that Armageddon, for John, is in the future? When John was writing the book of Revelation, the Roman Empire (the subject of his attacks and the object of his symbolism) was still very much in power. It was at the height of its power. It had not been defeated at any point in its past, and it was not under any threat of being defeated in John's present. If Rome would fall, it would have to be in John's future.
And what a fall it is: Jesus the conqueror, riding on a white horse, makes a dramatic reappearance in verse 11 of today's reading. This time instead of the horsemen of the apocalypse, he is accompanied by the "armies of heaven, wearing fine linen, white and pure...following him on white horses." Jesus comes to "strike down the nations" and to "tread the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty." By the way, if you're looking for biblical support for getting a tattoo, it's right here in this passage: "On his robe and on his thigh he has a name inscribed, 'King of kings and Lord of lords.'" If Jesus can inscribe his name on his thigh, it's probably ok for you.
Seriously, though, this battle gets pretty brutal. The monsters are thrown into a lake of fire and sulphur, and everyone else is killed by a sword that comes out of Jesus' mouth, and then the birds eat what's left over. It's kind of gruesome. And it makes you wonder what happened to the Jesus of the gospels, who taught his disciples to "love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you. Sometimes I think John of Patmos must have been out sick that day. The great reformer Martin Luther was tempted to throw the book of Revelation out the window entirely, because he couldn't find the compassionate, loving, Jesus of the gospels anywhere in its pages. He only decided to keep it when he discovered how useful it was in attacking his own great enemy at the time: The Pope, and the Roman Catholic church.
And I think that is the key to understanding the battle of Armageddon, and all of the wrath in the Book of Revelation: Because like Martin Luther, we all have our own epic struggles and great battles that seem like the end of the world. We are, of course, the forces of absolute good, and those who oppose us are the forces of absolute evil, or at least it seems that way. And we don't really want God to help us love our enemies more...we want God to smash them into little smithereens for all the world to see!
In Psalm 58, the psalmist prays: "O God, break the teeth in their mouths...Let them vanish like water that runs away; like grass let them be trodden down and wither. Let them be like the snail that dissolves into slime...The righteous will rejoice when they see vengeance done; they will bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked. People will say, ‘Surely there is a reward for the righteous; surely there is a God who judges on earth.’
Just because the Psalmist prays to God for bloody murder, and his prayer is recorded in the pages of the Bible forever, does not obligate God to answer that prayer in that manner. Or else all of us who have enemies (which is probably all us) are in big trouble. But it does mean that God will listen, even to angry prayers that cry out for justice. The Book of Revelation is John's passionate prayer to God for justice in a time when Christians are hated, persecuted, and powerless to fight their epic battles.
Remember these visions come to John in a dream: Dreams are manifestations of our deepest desires and fears, and we see both of those things, desires and fears, at work in John's vision. That doesn't make Revelation any less God-inspired--I believe that every book in the Bible is there for a reason. But Armageddon--like all great, epic battles between good and evil--is not meant to inspire fear. It is meant to reflect John's confident hope that in the end (whenever that may be) good will triumph over evil. God will take care of those who are rejected, despised, and acquainted with grief, even if today it seems like you are on the losing side of the battle.
When I go to the theater to watch a science fiction movie, I don't know what the outcome of that last, epic battle will be. If I did, it wouldn't be nearly as interesting, nearly as captivating, nearly as real. But throughout the battle, I have HOPE that everything will be made right in the end. Hope is a powerful thing. It keeps us going when everything around us says to give up. You can put your hope in a lot of different things. At the movies or in a book, I put my hope in the director, or in the author. Occasionally, I have been let down. But John of Patmos put his hope in the director of the universe, the author of all life. He raised his prayer to heaven, and then placed his epic battle in the hands of the Lord. May we all place our fears, our hopes and our epic battles in the hands of the Lord, who makes everything right in the end.