Sermon for September 12th, 2021
1 Then I heard a loud voice from the temple telling the seven angels, “Go and pour out on the earth the seven bowls of the wrath of God.” 2 So the first angel went and poured his bowl on the earth, and a foul and painful sore came on those who had the mark of the beast and who worshiped its image.
3 The second angel poured his bowl into the sea, and it became like the blood of a corpse, and every living thing in the sea died. 4 The third angel poured his bowl into the rivers and the springs of water, and they became blood. 5 And I heard the angel of the waters say, “You are just, O Holy One, who are and were, for you have judged these things; 6 because they shed the blood of saints and prophets, you have given them blood to drink. It is what they deserve!” 7 And I heard the altar respond, “Yes, O Lord God, the Almighty, your judgments are true and just!”
8 The fourth angel poured his bowl on the sun, and it was allowed to scorch people with fire; 9 they were scorched by the fierce heat, but they cursed the name of God, who had authority over these plagues, and they did not repent and give him glory. 10 The fifth angel poured his bowl on the throne of the beast, and its kingdom was plunged into darkness; people gnawed their tongues in agony, 11 and cursed the God of heaven because of their pains and sores, and they did not repent of their deeds.
12 The sixth angel poured his bowl on the great river Euphrates, and its water was dried up in order to prepare the way for the kings from the east. 13 And 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. 14 These 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.”) 16 And they assembled them at the place that in Hebrew is called Harmagedon.
17 The seventh angel poured his bowl into the air, and a loud voice came out of the temple, from the throne, saying, “It is done!” 18 And there came flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, and a violent earthquake, such as had not occurred since people were upon the earth, so violent was that earthquake. 19 The great city was split into three parts, and the cities of the nations fell. God remembered great Babylon and gave her the wine-cup of the fury of his wrath. 20 And every island fled away, and no mountains were to be found; 21 and huge hailstones, each weighing about a hundred pounds, dropped from heaven on people, until they cursed God for the plague of the hail, so fearful was that plague.
Revelation: The Wrath of God
Aliens decide to finally visit Earth…They come in peace and surprisingly, they speak English. So, all of the heads of government and religious leaders set up a meeting with our new visitors. When it's the Pope's turn, he asks "Do you know about our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ?" “Oh, you mean good old JC? Yeah, we know him! He's the best, isn't he? He swings by our planet every year to make sure that we are doing okay. He brings us all sorts of good things, and he always makes sure that we never have any earthquakes, diseases or natural disasters.” Surprised, the pope says, "He visits you every year? It's been over 2,000 years and we're still waiting for his SECOND coming!" The alien gets quiet and says, “Well, maybe he just likes our chocolate better than yours?" The pope retorts "Chocolates? What does that have to do with anything?" The alien says "Well, when he first visited our planet we welcomed him, had a great time, and when it was time for him to go, we gave him a huge box of chocolates! Why? What did you guys do?"
Today's sermon from the Book of Revelation is about the Wrath of God. That's something we don't really like to talk about, or even think about, really. We like to think of God as a heavenly Santa Claus, who is always kind and jolly, who always loves us, always listens to our wishes--I mean, our prayers--and always gives us everything we want. Of course, even Santa Claus has been known to drop the occasional lump of coal in a naughty stocking, but that doesn't seem so bad, and most of us don't know anyone that's actually happened to.
But Revelation chapter 16 (and several of the preceding chapters) paints God in a very different light. We see him dishing out (pardon the pun!) all sorts of nasty things to the people of the earth: Rivers of blood, scorching heat, darkness and sores, earthquakes, and 100 pound hailstones. This is probably a good place to remind ourselves that John's vision is written in a well-established genre called "apocalyptic literature." This kind of writing is always filled with coded imagery and symbolism, with each symbol representing something that would have made perfect sense to the original audience.
Symbols can be interpreted in a lot of ways, but by their very nature as symbols, they are never meant to be taken literally. When we call New York City the "big apple" the one thing we don't mean...is that it's a giant piece of fruit sitting on the Northeastern shore of the United States. The terrible symbols in the Book of Revelation, then, are not meant to be taken literally. But they are meant to be taken seriously. And underlying each symbol is this concept that makes us so uncomfortable: The Wrath of God.
I want to make the case today that God's wrath is not a bad thing. In fact, it is a very good and necessary thing. My wife, Amy, is one of the most kind and loving people you could ever meet. But if anyone or anything ever threatens one of our three children, look out! A mother's wrath is a powerful force, and a benevolent one, too. Shouldn't it be the same with God? In the same way, when we see horrible injustices committed in our world, we long for leaders who have the both the power AND the motivation to intervene, punishing those responsible and ensuring that justice is done.
The problem is, we're okay with righteous anger and wrathful justice when it is directed at "those" people, "bad" people, people who are not US. And we ourselves are NEVER bad, right? Of course, we all know the real answer to that question.
In our scripture passage today, God's Wrath is poured out upon humanity in seven "bowls." And that's a great symbol in itself. A bowl is something that usually contains food or drink--things meant to nourish and sustain us, not to harm us. And yet, in the 1st century world, bowls were also used to administer medicine, herbs and remedies meant to heal those who were sick. Even today, medicine doesn't always taste good going down. But we know that the person giving it to us loves us, and wants us to be better. So it is with God, and the bowls of God's wrath.
Throughout the book of Revelation, and also the entire Bible, there are only two things capable of summoning God's wrath: The first is people or situations that threaten God's children--specifically the people of Israel in the Old Testament, or the early Christians in the New Testament.
We see an example of this in today's scripture: God turns the rivers and waters of the earth into blood (again, this is symbolic of something, probably not literal blood). Why? Verse 6: "because they shed the blood of saints and prophets, you have given them blood to drink. It is what they deserve!" In the time when John was writing Revelation, Christians were being slaughtered by the Roman Empire because of their faith. The manifestation of God's wrath, is in part a cry for justice, and also a promise that in the near future, justice will prevail.
The second thing that summons God's wrath is when people put their hope, their trust, their allegiance in things that are not God. This is called idolatry, worshiping false idols. As a parent, this one makes sense to me as well: I know that I love my children, and I will always have their best interests at heart, but I can get really upset when I see them putting their faith and trust in things I know are false or dangerous. I want them to be able to make good decisions on their own, but it's also my responsibility to step in and intervene when someone or something is leading them astray.
We see this in verse 2, when the first bowl of God's wrath, "a foul and painful sore came on those who had the mark of the beast and who worshiped its image."
There's been a LOT of intrigue and speculation in the last 2,000 years on what exactly this "mark of the beast" is. Earlier in the Book of Revelation, in chapter 13, we learn that this "beast" would cause everyone, "both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave," to receive a certain mark, so that "no one can buy or sell who does not have the mark." In John's day, the Roman emperor Domitian (the first emperor to begin actively executing Christians) required people to address him as dominus et deus noster which is Latin for "our Lord and God." This phrase was printed on Roman coins, along with Domitian's image. Obviously, Christians would have a problem with this, and so Revelation is probably saying that those who participate in the cult of Emperor worship are at risk for summoning the wrath of our true Lord and God, the creator of the universe.
The "Beast" is part of a demonic trio that shows up in several places in Revelation, including verse 13 of today's passage: The dragon, the beast, and the false prophet. Some scholars interpret the Dragon as Satan, the Beast as the Roman Emperor, and the "false prophet" as the Roman civic structure--the local governors and temple priests who enforced worship of the Emperor. But on another level, this "unholy trio" is also a symbolic perversion of the Holy Trinity: God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
In verse 19, God reserves the greatest share of his wrath--the seventh bowl--for the Great City of Babylon, which is destroyed by an earthquake and 100 pound hailstones. Of course, by the time John was writing this, the historic city of Babylon had already been destroyed, 500 years in the past. Here again, "Babylon" is a symbol. The ancient enemy of Israel was a stand-in for the current enemy of the early Christians, the city at the heart of the Roman Empire, the city of Rome. If John had actually written about the destruction of Rome, he would have been found guilty of treason and executed, in the same way that anyone today who publishes a manifesto on Facebook about destroying Washington D.C. would probably get a not so pleasant visit from the FBI.
One more point of interest. Verse 14-16 talk about the kings of the earth assembling for a great battle at a place called "Harmagedon" or as it is often incorrectly pronounced, "Armagedon." In Hebrew, "Har" means mountain. But there is no mountain called "magedon" that we know of in the ancient world. There is a plain in Northern Israel called "Megiddo" that was the site of several historic battles, and is a likely candidate. Here again, this is symbolism, a stand-in for some undetermined place where God would defeat the Roman Empire and finally bring justice to his wounded, hurting children.
Of course, if you're a student of history, you know that the Roman Empire did not fall in one colossal battle. That happened hundreds of years later, through many battles and a process of gradual decline, and by then (in an ironic twist) Christianity had become the officially recognized religion of the Roman Empire.
But that didn't stop generations of Christians from speculating about when Armageddon would finally happen, and when the Dragon and the Beast and the False Prophet would appear, and when the mark of the beast would be imposed, and when the prophecies of Revelation would finally come to pass.
I have said before that I do not believe we are in the "end times" today, or that Revelation was ever meant to be interpreted as a prediction about the end of the world. But I do believe that its message is just as relevant today as it was in John's time when it was written. Revelation is not a crystal ball. Instead, it's a mirror--a way for us to see and understand the dangers we face in every age--a constant warning about what happens when we persecute and threaten God's children, and when we put our trust and allegiance in things that are not God.
If we do not take Revelation literally, we must still take it seriously. We should ask ourselves, what are the unholy trinities in our world today, which threaten God's children? What are the false idols that demand we should worship them in place of God? I have some ideas about that, although your list may be different than mine.
The first is a dragon and a new religion we have created, called...Science. Hear me out on this one. I'm a fan of classical science, and most of the pioneers of the scientific method (people like Galileo, Descartes, and Isaac Newton) were devout Christians. But today, I hear people speak of Science in a way that sounds more like a belief, a philosophy, a religion than anything else. They put their unquestioning faith and trust in "Science" and scientists, even when they themselves have little understanding of its basic tenets, and little willingness to learn. We are taught that things spoken "in the name of science," are beyond reproach, even though the historic scientific method tells us to challenge and test every hypothesis, every proof, on a continual and ongoing basis. Ultimately, the very best science consists of nothing more than observations and interpretations from fallible human beings, institutions, and corporations. If you put your first and foremost trust in science, instead of the God who created the laws of science and the universe, you will be led astray.
The second is the beast, and it is the same in our own time as it was in the first century: The powers and governmental authorities of the world. Caesar is alive and well today, and he still wants to be Lord and God of your life, your choices, and your heart. Whether it's a Chinese government that imprisons Christians for their faith, an Afghan government that martyrs them, or an American government that silences them, any earthly power that competes with God for your allegiance and your faith is worthy of neither. Our country and also the Presbyterian Church were founded with a healthy dose of skepticism for all worldly power, and a strong preference for individual liberty and freedom of conscience.
The third is the false prophet of politics and political parties. Two years ago, if I had stood before you and said that Donald Trump is the antichrist, a force for evil who is leading our country astray, half of you would have agreed with me. Today if I said the same thing about Joe Biden, the other half would agree. So here's the truth: Our allegiance to EITHER political party, IF it is the driving force behind our choices, our beliefs, our relationships and the way we perceive other people...is a false idol, and leads us away from God, not to mention each other.
In my humble opinion, all three of these things are real and present-day threats to God's people, and to our faith in God, just as those written about by John in the first century. Of course, you are free to make your own list. Verse 15 of our scripture passage says that "Blessed is the one who stays awake and is clothed, not going about naked and exposed to shame." Clothing and nakedness are symbols, too. They usually represent preparedness, or lack thereof.
Preparedness (in every age) comes from studying God's word, and studying the world around us that God created. Preparedness comes from community, from immersing ourselves in dialogue and conversation with faithful people, even when we disagree with each other. And finally, preparedness comes from prayer, and from laying down our biases, anxieties, and preconceived ideas at the feet of Jesus; listening to his voice alone, amidst all the other noise that competes for our attention.
In verse 17, when the seventh and final bowl of God's wrath is poured out, the angel says, "It is done." In other words, God's wrath is finite, limited. It is real, but it does come to an end. This is my prayer for you, and for me, today:
In seasons of God's love, may we be thankful. In seasons of God's testing, may we be faithful. In seasons of God's wrath, may we be prepared. And in all seasons, may we persevere.