Singing the Victory of God

Sermon Scripture Text: Revelation 18:21-24, 19:1-9

Audio Here, preached at Peace Fellowship Church on August 20, 2017.

For many of us, Revelation is the last book of the Bible we turn to for comfort. Oh sure, we may hear a reassuring word at a funeral (like Ch. 7—“God will wipe away every tear”) or the vision from the end of the book of the new heavens and new earth, Chapter21. But I would venture to guess that few of us look to Revelation for questions about the rest of life.

For understandable reasons, many of us avoid this book like the 6th plague (that’s a Revelation joke—seeing if you’re paying attention. You didn’t know Revelation could be funny, did you?). Or, for other people, they have maybe made too much of it, offering it as a kind of playbook or movie script for the so-called “end times.” Some have even made a big profit from an industry that relies on a certain, narrow, interpretation of it—Left Behind, Late Great Planet Earth, and the like.

For me, I also avoided reading it for most of my life. I remember in 8th or 9th grade, I was in a Bible Study through my church youth group, led by other youth, and we talked about choosing Revelation for our book of study one year. I came home and told my dad about this idea, and he immediately vetoed it, explaining that it was a complicated book that needed a careful, trained guide in order to understand. So I steered clear of it for the most part for a long time out of a kind of fear that I was not ready to comprehend its message.

Yet, sometime after college, my same father wrote such a guide to Reading Revelation well—Responsibly—with an eye to literary genre, political issues of the time, and other important guide posts to make it seem less unreachable, and more like Scripture, meaning a text through which we believe the Holy Spirit can breathe new life into us with each reading. For if a part of our Bible has become unreadable, scary, foreign, then it has stopped being Scripture. It can go on the shelf with books like James Joyce’s Ulysses. (Anyone who has ever read that book knows it needs its own companion guide to understand!).

Since I helped my dad index the book, I had to read it, and I found myself opened in a new way to the message of the Apocalypse. Since then, I have come regard it as the unsung hero of the New Testament—the only book of almost entirely prophetic literature in the NT, who fantastic images and scenes invite us to use our imagination as well to adopt a new imagination—an apocalyptic imagination. The word apocalypse means “unveiling,” and it implies—by definition at least–not the “end of times” but rather that the curtain between the spiritual realm and our earthly realm has been pulled back for a glimpse into deeper forces—both good and evil—at work in our world. An apocalyptic imagination, therefore, invites us to look at our lives, individually and communally, as a part of a deeper struggle, and in the mind of Revelation, a truer victory, than may be immediately apparent. Revelation is like the Matrix—taking the red pill—to see with different lenses. (Sorry—have I missed the boat on Matrix references? Is that so 2005?) Revelation invites us to understand that God has, is, and will defeat evil. Let me re-say that: Revelation is the unequivocal assertion that God has defeated, is defeating, and will defeat evil once and for all. Amen? In short, Revelation presents the answer to the problem of evil. In your life, you may be asking, or have asked, ‘Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be until your justice comes?” like the faithful saints in Revelation 9. Revelation’s Lamb says, “Behold I am coming soon.”

At a basic level, there are TWO prevailing themes in Revelation.

1) God is forever. God is described as the Alpha and Omega; the one who was, is, and is to come. The first and Last. Ancient of Days. God shares the throne with the Lamb who was slaughtered, who was found worthy because he was slaughtered, because his power is expressed not by might, but by humble sacrifice. This is significant—any other fantastic images of the Lamb or Jesus in Revelation are rooted in—not contradicting—this first and most crucial image of the Lion-who-is-slaughtered-Lamb in Chapter 4 is an unusual conqueror. He conquers through self-giving love.

By contrast, evil in its many forms, is not forever. The language of Revelation is the impending end of all sickness, oppression, war, persecution. Whether it takes the form of a dragon, beasts, economic injustice ,plagues, sickness, racism, sexism, classism, nationalism, colonialism,  (someone say Amen?)—its days are officially numbered when the kingdom of God begins to take over the authority given to kings of the earth (chapters 11 and 12 in Revelation) and, as it so beautifully says in 11:15: “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign forever and ever.” Some might know this as the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah.

Revelation addresses many kinds of evil, but the root issue throughout is idolatry, which leads to the second basic theme: true worship of God and the Lamb. Why is Revelation so concerned with the sin of idolatry? What does idolatry mean? Idolatry, generally, is giving worship or allegiance to other things or gods besides the true God and Lamb. In a literal sense, people during John the Seer’s day (who wrote Revelation) were literally worshiping statues of Greek and Roman gods, the emperor himself, all sorts of things. Christians were constantly struggling with their own relationship to these gods and the often debaucherous cult of worship that surrounded them at temples. On the one hand, John is speaking about a particularly specific and dangerous idea. Yet, idolatry means more than just conscious worship or homage to a statue.

Throughout the Old Testament, idolatry is seen as the fundamental sin of Israel. Whether in the Garden of Eden (giving deference to the Serpent— it is no coincidence that Revelation uses a giant serpent/dragon to represent the Satan), the golden calf at Mt. Sinai, or the worship of Baal and other foreign gods, God’s people have tended to let other things take the place of YHWH. In a big picture kind of way, idolatry is at the heart of all sin. So in Revelation, John is showing that a particular kind of idolatry is at work in the world: evil, in the form of a dragon and his beast minions is trying to get people to worship them, pay them homage, and give allegiance that is due God alone (makes you stop and wonder about all those who criticize Colin Kapernick and others for not standing during the National Anthem). This idolatry is especially subtle as it comes through the nations, those tasked with to protecting and caring for the people have deceived them into giving their loyalty and trust in their sovereignty alone. Those who participate in and perpetuate its unjust economy (a mark on the forehead or wrist) are also committing idolatry. God is not deceived. John then uses the graphic imagery of “fornication” for Babylon, which is the embodiment of all the wickedness of the Beasts. Babylon fornicates with other kings and nations instead of being faithful to YHWH. Our text today contrasts the faithful church against the adulterous Babylon. Babylon of course is the land of exile that Israel dwelt in—the land of Baal, of idolatry, where God’s presence does not dwell. By using metaphoric imagery and coded language (Babylon instead of Rome, for instance, or Beast instead of Nero), the people and places are universal, calling for “a mind with wisdom,” to use John’s phrase, to see Babylon as any nation or institution that places itself at odds with God’s just and merciful ways. Just like Babylon can be any city or nation that oppresses, or demands allegiance and power, so too can dragons be any leaders or powers that push for war, racism, violence, hatred, and the temptation to idolatry can take any number of forms. This is one place where apocalyptic imagination is so vital.

Of course, the other side of idolatry is genuine, true worship of the only one who is worthy, and Revelation gives us almost 2 dozen explicit instances of worship in the form of proclamation and song. These songs and proclamations are sung by a variety of characters that I am today calling the “Heavenly Choir,” though there are some distinct subsets within this mass choir. This choir acts in many ways like the choruses of ancient Greek tragedies—they are always in the background of the drama, responding to events and people who appear. Yet in style, they’re more like a gospel choir, participating in a kind of “call and response” mode. Brian Blount calls the worship in Revelation a “Spiritual-Blues impulse,” meaning that over and over, the sung praises of God erupt responsively.

It blew my mind when I realized just how much worship is part of Revelation. It was always pitched to me as a scary story about judgment and plagues and God ruthlessly destroying enemies of God. Those things are in there—though not with the fear and cruelty that is often gleefully trumpeted—but far, far more prevalent are the songs of adulation, joy, adoration, and just praise of who God is.  (It is an interesting literary aside that those who worship the beast are never given a voice—we don’t know the “lyrics” to their idolatrous praise. In fact, the only voices, until the passage of text directly related to the one at hand for us today, we hear belong to God or God’s faithful. )

I see this call-and-response choir in 3 ways:

  1. Responding to God’s character: Especially in Chapters 4 and 5, there are these different groups of people that praise God simply because God is creator. God is worthy of worship because of who God is: the Creator. The Lamb is worthy of worship because he has been slaughtered and ransomed people from every nation to God.

2. Responding to other Saints: Often the songs of worship come in response to other groups singing. As we see in our text today, there is sometimes a domino effect: one group starts singing, then another chimes in, and then another, and then an “Amen.”

3.Responding to What God Does: Remember that Revelation is the story of God’s past, present, and future victory over evil. Different parts of this “heavenly choir” witness God gain some victory over evil and they respond in song and worship. Listen to the words from Chapter 19:3 (after Babylon has fallen): Once more they said, “Hallelujah! The smoke rises from her forever!” It’s like God’s victory is the “Call,” and worship is the “response.” And it almost feels like someone said, “Can I get an Amen?” because the next thing we hear is, “Amen, Hallelujah!” And then the multitude calls back, “Hallelujah! The Lord Almighty reigns!”

Singing the Victory with our Lives

Brothers and sisters, Revelation is not the script of the “end times,” but it is a kind of script in that it invites us to participate in the divine drama of salvation. We’ve been cast, as a community, as God’s people, as the “choir.” Our text today invites us and challenges us to think about what that means:

This specific passage is in response to the “fall of Babylon.” We see the response first of those who mourn Babylon’s defeat in Chapter 18:  First the kings and nations who benefited from her sins: “Alas, alas!” Then the Merchants and those who got rich off her oppression of others, weep and wail at the loss of its splendor. Then the sailors and those who carried the so-called Greatness of Babylon to others throw dust on their heads and ask, “What city was like the great city!” They might have said Make Babylon Great Again.  This is the city that we are told, had become a dwelling place of demons, a haunt of every foul spirit, a ruiner of other nations. This is the city God’s people are told to come out of, to steer clear of its sins.

When Babylon receives its defeat, its ill-gained riches lost, its finery and excess wealth destroyed, are the people told to feel sorry? No, they are told, rejoice! Rejoice that Babylon has fallen!

Revelation challenges us to wonder if we’re rooting for Babylon to win. Do we stand to gain, like merchants and sailors and kings, from Babylon? This Babylon will fall, whatever it is. It may be the nicest Babylon the world has ever known, but it is still Babylon. It may not be a violent fall—let’s pray not—but it will fall. Unjust leaders will be brought down; systemic racism will end; Mass Incarceration will end; Unjust over-consumption will be over. Revelation tells us that all Babylons will fall, but then turns and asks us, “Will you weep with the merchants or rejoice with the angels?”

This passage, like others in Chapters 14-16 is worship of God in response to God’s victory over evil. The choir are literal witnesses of God’s justice. They erupt in joy and praise, claiming God’s sovereignty, God’s authority, over all. They are songs of testimony. We are invited to sing our songs in response to God’s goodness, God’s character, yes, but just as much to respond to God’s justice. Do we have songs that proclaim this victory? Do we sing them with confidence of their truth?

This should tell us that our weekly worship services are not merely social gatherings, they are not merely affirmation gatherings, where we tell each other we’re not crazy. No, they have a participatory nature: when we worship, our songs become a corporate shout-down of evil, because we know God has already won the battle! Revelation is filled with this funny tension—knowing that God has already claimed victory in the Lamb who conquers, and that the Beast has a mortal wound, that its days have been numbered and that its time is short, and yet knowing that even now the beast is still trying to steal our allegiance. We sing in response to each little and big victory we see happening. The victory is God’s, we are simply the witnesses. We just sing the victory—in song and word on Sunday, with our lives the rest of the week

The beauty of worship in Revelation can inspire and invite us to write new songs (literally—2 different times, the choirs spontaneously sing a new song) that tell both of God’s worthiness and God’s justice. In that sense, our apocalyptic imagination is so necessary—without it, we will continue to see the darkness of the world instead of the light breaking through. I know we have writers here—write lyrics, and poetry, and testimonies. Work with a musician, write a song that we can sing together. Write a prayer or a call and response chant for the community. Be open to impulses that spontaneously urge you to praise God in our services, your life.

A new imagination is so desperately needed in American Christianity, and a commitment to the kind of worship evident in Revelation could be the avenue that leads us there. It is not enough to be simply for or against “empire” or patriotism or nationalism. St. John writes to churches—plural—facing various kinds of challenges and temptations, but the unifying call for all of them is in chapters 4 and 5: to behold the throne of God and the victorious Lamb and worship them with a new song. We all must become performers and narrators of the drama of God’s restorative acts and judgment through worship in our communities. That is our first call, to worship, and it strips away all of the other layers that our fallen selves add on—allegiance to political parties, leaders, even Christendom itself. When this happens, the community becomes (as another, wise Gorman has written), “a sacred space in which their imaginations and lives can be increasingly converted into the image of the Lamb” (Gprman, Reading Revelation Responsibly 178). It is through worship that dividing walls of political ideologies within in the church can be broken. Worship could heal the fractured church.

In the end, literally, worship is what we have been created to do, and it is the only appropriate response to the voice of the One who stands knocking, to the Spirit which says, “Come,” and to the God who is in enthroned above all creation. Through worship in the spirit of Revelation, an apocalyptic imagination is made available and a life of faithful witness is possible.

As we close today in song, I want to invite you to imbue your songs with new meaning. Add some extra weight to your hallelujah today. Let’s sing the victory of God! We even have a 2 part chorus for our closing song today.

Somone sing God’s victory over illness this past week. Someone rejoice as a piece of Babylon fell when that brave woman pulled that statue down in Durham. Someone sing God’s victory as thousands of people marched yesterday to shout down hatred and hate speech. Someone sing God’s victory as a white supremacist and war mongerer at the White House got fired. Someone sing the victory that’s still coming over violence and gentrification here in Deanwood and DC. Someone sing  the victory over economic injustice. You know the angels in heaven will be singing when a certain world leader resigns. Someone sing that victory!

It’s coming—God’s victory—but let the forces of wickedness in the spiritual realms hear you sing it today and live it so loud this week that the very walls of hostility in our world come tumbling down. Amen? Amen.

 

 

 

 

[1] Gorman, 178.

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Joyeux Noel (Sermon)

Below is the text of a sermon I preached last Sunday at Peace Fellowship Church, here in Washington, D.C. It’s not exact, and there may be an audio version of it some where online.

One of the reasons I am excited to share a bit today is because I love Advent. In the last few years of my life, Advent has really become a special season for me. Like the season of Lent, it is a cyclical reminder to reflect on our lives, to recognize the good and the bad, to repent, and to prepare for Christ. In fact, in its earliest days, the Advent season was the same length as Lent.

There’s something about Advent that really moves me. But it wasn’t until recently that I came to a more tangible sense of what it’s really about. Immediately after I graduated from college, I spent the better part of a year living in Durham in a Christian community. I lived in a small house with a family of 3 (and expecting a 2nd child) and another single man and we shared money, meals, and life together with 5 others at another house. Being the youngest child in my family, I’d never spent much time around a pregnant woman, and my friend Sarah gave birth just as Advent was beginning. Perhaps some of you can relate: the final few weeks of the pregnancy were filled with a tangible, visceral sense of absolute need to have that baby arrive. The pregnancy had been difficult, the husband had lost his job just two months prior, stress and anxiety were high as we awaited this new baby.

In a quiet moment during morning prayer that year, I had a serious “Aha!” moment, where I connected the pregnancy of Mary with the Advent season. Somehow, Advent is to be our pregnancy, our final four weeks before a new creation springs forth. Maybe Mary Ruth and Brett can understand that a little better now.

Every year, we’re reminded to wait. I imagine, though, that sometimes we ask ourselves, “What are we waiting for?”

Of course, the Sunday School Answer is “Jesus.” Everyone knows “Jesus is the reason for the season,” but I’m not sure we always have an accurate picture of what that even means.

But Isaiah helps us to imagine exactly what it is that we’re waiting for. This passage, written while Israel was an exiled people ruled by a foreign king, sets the tone for how we should approach Advent. Isaiah recognized the darkness surrounding them, the despair, a sense that perhaps they’d been forgotten. We read in Psalms that “By the water of Babylon, we lay down and wept for thee Zion.” But there is hope, he says, for the people walking in darkness have seen a great light. On them, a light has shone.

It is important here to note that Isaiah is addressing a people, a community. Isaiah does not preach that an individual will be shone a light, but that this hope is for the people. God is looking to restore broken communities, communities injured by violence, oppression, injustice, and sin.

Isaiah continues, looking forward to a righteous king who will end oppression and war, whose authority grows over time and whose reign brings about peace for Israel. This king will establish his reign justly and will signal an end to the years of Israel’s bad kings and foreign rulers. Isaiah remembers, fondly, King David, and expects that this king will re-establish the Davidic Monarchy. We must also realize that Isaiah paints David in some rosy colors—it would be difficult to call David a Prince of Peace, if we remember how David committed adultery and then sent the husband of Bathsheba to die on the front lines of battle. It would be like being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize while in the middle of two wars. But Isaiah feels the pain of war and bloodshed and welcomes a day when it will end.

No, Isaiah dreams of a king even more righteous than David. Yet, I believe that Isaiah’s vision is ultimately limited; while inspiring, hopeful, and beautiful, Isaiah still envisions a typical-style monarch who will bring the nations under his rule. This is not to say that Isaiah is wrong, but rather that God has an even still deeper vision, even more beautiful, and even more scandalous. If you remember even further back in the Old Testament in 1 Samuel, when the people ask for a king, God says, “You don’t need a king like other nations; I will be your king.” But the people forsook God, and so Israel has been stuck, thinking inside the box of kings. Isaiah, for all the beauty of his vision, is still thinking inside that box.

But the Incarnation of Jesus at Christmas teaches us to think outside the box of kings and emperors and presidents. Jesus’ birth isn’t a return to the Davidic Monarchy, but the Divine Monarchy, where the throne of God is among people (as Revelation envisions). The kingdom of God breaks in, like a thief, on a cold night in a dark animal cave. The Prince of Peace is born a poor and homeless in the shadow of the Roman Empire. He quickly becomes a refugee, as his unwed teenage mother flees with him to avoid the slaughter of innocents. This king, this kingdom, are anything but typical. And so, Isaiah’s words take on a new meaning in Jesus. Jesus fulfills this prophecy in ways Isaiah could never have imagined, redefining the entire notion of a righteous king and a righteous God.

The kingdom of God is announced by angels, declaring joyfully “PEACE on EARTH,” made possible only by the birth of the true Prince of Peace. But it’s not just what happens that is crucial here, but how it happens: 1)God’s kingdom does not come all at once, as if by takeover from a military, but rather it eeks into the world, little by little 2) we learn that God’s character is most fully revealed in what the world calls weakness: a helpless, vulnerable baby is God Incarnate. I find it so striking that the two most important and poignant images in all of Christian thought are of Jesus the King as a baby in a manger and Jesus the King with a crown of thorns on his head on a Roman cross. The bookends of Jesus’ life are marked by vulnerability and weakness, dismissed so easily by the rest of the world. God’s power is revealed in weakness, God’s glory in humiliation, God’s love in death. Indeed, the Christmas story points us to the depth of God’s love, not only that in that God takes human form, but that this way of being in the world, the way of downward mobility and weakness, of servant leadership, leads to the greatest love:  of one’s enemies, modeled at the cross.

To me, this is what is so beautiful about Scripture and prophecy, that God does far more with Isaiah’s words than he could have thought—that’s what makes it inspired! Without Jesus, Isaiah’s words are just another good campaign speech—hopeful for change, but not any different from what’s come before. Israel has had kings, all of them a concession by God. Jesus comes and says, “no more concessions; I am.”

I would say that most Christmas celebrations don’t wrestle with this side of the story. We like to stay in the comfortable, cozy Jesus found in “Away in a Manger,” which teaches us that God dwells in the sky and that God’s great desire is for us to be taken from this world there. Christmas becomes about family togetherness, the giving of gifts, the enjoying of food. These are not bad things, but the birth of Jesus throws out our definition of family, starting a new family of God. The birth of Jesus is God’s message not that God wants to take us to heaven in the sky, but that God is breaking into the world through the back window and wants to dwell among US. The birth of Jesus declares to the principalities and authorities of this world, “Your reign is over, my kingdom is here.” Do we know that THIS is what we await at Christmas? This is what the world awaits at Christmas, even if it doesn’t know it! All creation is groaning, Paul says, at the birth pangs of what God is about to do. Will we proclaim this, like the angels, the messengers of God, declaring Peace on Earth?

And yet, the truly remarkable feature of the kingdom Jesus preaches, in contrast to typical kingdoms, is that we are called and given the opportunity to take part in it. We get to dream dreams and work with Christ to bring Isaiah’s vision to be. Isaiah gives us the vision, Christ shows us the way to live out God’s kind of power—through weakness. We need God-given imagination, though, to think outside of the boxes our world presents us with. God’s kingdom flips the logic of this world upside down, and to live and act like Jesus, we need to prayer for that kind of creativity.

But I worry that our imagination, our vision, is limited by our context. Like Isaiah, will we stay in the box of kings and presidents? I worry that our definition of the Prince of Peace is more like David, imagining a President who can use military might to crush evil with violence instead of realizing we have a savior who took the violence of his enemies upon himself. Will we become the peacemakers who display the scandalous enemy-love of God in Christ Jesus?

If we will, there will be consequences. So we must ask ourselves, “Where does God call us to preach this good news of peace on earth and love for our enemies?” As the church universal, will we say “no” to war and violence, done often in the name and blessing of our God? Will we cry out in the wilderness, as drones are used to kill our brothers and sisters all over the world?

As Peace Fellowship Church, will we live out our name? Will we be peace in this neighborhood, in this part of the city? Will we teach this nonviolent love to others? Will we be a witness to the transforming way of servant leadership and what the world calls weakness? Will we trust God and take risks in this area? Isaiah dreams of a restored community, a community of Shalom; do we share that dream and are we willing to take part? Broken communities are often stuck in cycles that cannot be disrupted with the sam old answers. I work for a community arts program that offers the arts to families who wouldn’t be able to afford it other wise, and part of my reason for being a part of that organization is because I believe the arts can be God’s way of teaching people to think creatively about the problems of their own community, to learn new answers to old questions. How can Peace be an agent of transformation in the imagination of this community?

And as individuals, will we practice enemy-love? Will we get in the way of violence, physical, verbal, emotional, violence in our world? At our workplaces, in our families? Will we speak the peace and love of Jesus to each other, daring to receive insult without returning? Will we let Christ’s love begin with us and flow outward to the world?

I mentioned consequences. We live in a violent world, in which we are called to live gently. But the world will not always like it—living out this love means coming into conflict with the reigning kingdoms—cultural, governmental, corporate, military—who may respond with the only way they know: violence. In World War I, on Christmas Eve, enemy troops at various places in the war decided to put and end to their fighting, even for just one night. The movie Joyeux Noel tells a story based on this Christmas Eve Truce, of how French, Scottish, and German soldiers put down their guns to share Christmas together and then were unable to kill each other afterward. It is a hopeful, touching story that offers a glimpse into what the Incarnation teaches us that Isaiah is all about. These weren’t activists or preachers, these were ordinary men who upon having an encounter with the Prince of Peace, could not help but give in and love their enemies. But not everyone was thrilled about the “fraternizing” that happens in this story, when a priest says Mass and then the troops exchange gifts and music and play games together.

See the video in the post below.

With the sobering reality of how scandalous God’s love is, I invite you to wait in urgent expectation for the coming of the Prince of Peace. Amen.