13th Sunday After Pentecost, September 11, 2011
“By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down; yea, we wept as we remembered Zion.” So begins the lament of Ps 137. “We hung up our harps on the willows there. For there our captors required songs, our tormentors commanded mirth: ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion.’ How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”
Good question! For here we are, 10 years beyond that sunny Tuesday morning when violent men unleashed their heinous act that turned the world into a very strange land for so many, many people. We get plenty of bluster from the noisy advocates of a muscular Christianity, while those “men without chests,” as C.S. Lewis once described their lot, those purveyors of milquetoast Christianity continue to simper on and on about pacifism. 10 years, and still we do not quite know how to sing the Lord’s song in a land become so strange.
That’s been abundantly clear as we have traveled through the strange land of this Book of Revelation. We have had ample opportunity to note again and again in these past weeks that you cannot understand this Book apart from the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Take Good Friday and Easter away from this Book and you end up with what we get so very often, some sort of contrived roadmap of world events. And every time someone sneezes in the Middle East, another religious PT Barnum comes out with a new shell game about the “real secrets” hidden in the Book of Revelation.
St. John doesn’t play those games. John writes—whether it’s in his Gospel, his 3 Epistles or this Apocalypse—the beloved disciple writes, as he put it, “so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that by believing you may have life in His name.” That’s what the Book of Revelation is about! Jesus Christ! It’s not a code book for calculating the date for the end of the world, whether you put it back on May 21st or next year on December 21st. It’s about Christ! It’s about death and resurrection. For Him. For us. For the world. “Though we die, yet shall we live.” That’s the song!
Now as we come to the end, it is almost startling to watch how quickly it finishes! So very quickly! In v11, Jesus appears. Yes, the figure with eyes of flame, rides a white horse, v12, crowns of gold, but it’s Jesus. V13, He wears a robe dipped in blood. He’s called “the Word of God.” In Greek, the Logos, the Word. That’s John’s favorite name for Jesus. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God…. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” John’s version of Christmas!
And the battle will be decisive. In v17, an angel calls the critters to come to a feast. The vision captures all the grisly aftermath of war in the 1st century…of looters stripping the dead bodies and of the carrion birds stripping the bones of their flesh. But it’s not an historical battle…it is a vision of Christ’s victory in every age.
V19, the Beast, 1 & 2 together, leads the army of Antichrist, but from the Beginning, this great cosmic battle is over before it starts because of that sword from the mouth of the Rider on the white horse, back in v15. That sword is the Word of God, the only sword the Church carries. If the Church or an individual Christian turned to force, to violence to defend or advance the faith, it ceases to be Christian. It becomes Antichristian! So throughout time and at the end of all things, it is the Word from Jesus that pronounces judgment. V20, into the “fiery lake of burning sulfur” goes Beast 1 & 2. They’re judged, the deed is done. One little Word has felled them. “It is finished.”
20:1, “And I saw an angel coming down out of heaven, having the key to the Abyss and holding in his hand a great chain. He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil, or Satan, and bound him for a thousand years.” This “thousand years,” the Millennium, is so often interpreted historically. There was hysteria at the dawn of the year 1000 AD because so many folks thought the Millennium was coming to an end. In Martin Luther’s day, some of the radical reformers proclaimed that the Millennium had come, and they launched all sorts of ill-fated utopian schemes. It was big in the middle of the 19th Century, in the midst of our “Manifest Destiny.” We heard it in the Y2K hysteria…then with last spring’s foolishness about the Rapture.
But as St. John plainly records Jesus telling Pontius Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world!” So the Millennium here in Revelation 20 is not some earthly 1000 year Reich, with a special resurrection for the martyrs, v4, while everyone else, v5, does the dirt sleep for a 1000 years. No! The Millennium is, in fact, the period of time from Jesus’ death and resurrection until His coming again in glory.
“Wait a minute,” say those literalist folks, “if that’s the case…why doesn’t the world look like Satan is bound? Where are all those images in the Old Testament, of swords beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks? It can’t be the Millennium, then!”
Well, you could be cute and say that the Millennium is just another name for heaven. But that would miss John’s point. The mystery here is that the fulfillment is now, even while we wait for it in heaven. The final judgment has come for Satan by the cross, even while it awaits the Last Day. We have eternal life now, even though we do not yet know what this fully means. Death and resurrection has already come upon us in Holy Baptism. We have died with Christ. We are raised with Him…though not yet do we see it.
This is how we learn to sing the Lord’s song in the strange land of this world; by the cross and resurrection of Jesus. John is reminding his readers by means of all of these visions—those first readers who lived in the strangeness of Rome’s persecutions, and us who live in the midst of a world so strange—John reminds his readers that in this strange Babylon world we are now God’s children, already raised with Christ. That’s the 1st resurrection as he says, v5.
But then because we live in this world knowing that in Christ we are God’s children now, raised in Christ now, knowing that heaven is already our dwelling place, now we love as He has loved us. We love our neighbor as ourselves, even if it comes to bearing in our own bodies the wounds of this strange world, the wounds of Christ’s love. In Him, by faith, we become like first responders, running into the flames of the world for the sake of those trying to run out. As He said, “Greater love hath no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” And we do, because we know. We know that already we are raised with Christ…although not yet do we see it.
Oh there is so much to ponder here! But time is running out. At the end of the Millennium, 20:7, that Last Day when Christ shall return, the last battle is fought. In v8 we read of “Gog and Magog”, cryptic anagrams for Babylon. Not historical Babylon, but figurative Babylon, figurative Rome, all the forces of history that ever stood opposed to God and His Christ. Again, it’s a short battle, v9, and “in the twinkling of an eye,” Satan too is cast into the fire, v10.
Then comes the resurrection of the body; some to life (the 2nd resurrection, the first being faith), some to judgment (the 2nd death, the first being physical death), according to what a person has done in life, either in faith or without faith. And then, finally, v14, death itself is cast into that same fiery judgment. “It is finished!”
Now, some folks get so caught up in the visionary details—what is that fire, why is death personified, what’s damnation like? Resurrection, what is it? But the vision doesn’t say. It’s a mystery. As St. Paul writes of the resurrection, “We will all be changed in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye…the dead will be raised imperishable.” But, no, you can’t explain how that happens with naturalistic, materialist terms. It remains a mystery…BUT no less true for being a mystery!
And then comes all the wonder in chapter 21 of the new heavens and the new earth, emerging, like the Beginning, out of the chaos and void by God’s creative Word. V5, “I am making everything new!” In v3, a voice exclaims, “Now the dwelling of God is with men.” But that reality had already begun long ago in the Tabernacle of Israel’s wilderness wandering, fulfilled in the tabernacle of flesh named Jesus, who continues to tabernacle among us by His Word.
V9, we see life with God, portrayed as the Holy City, with gates of pearl, streets of gold, and foundations of precious stone. No, that’s not literally what life in heaven looks like. It’s a vision, a wonder greater than any imagination could say. But the point is…in Christ we are already there, because He has prepared a place for us.
Chapter 22, then, shows us the River of life, v1, the Holy Spirit flowing from the throne of God and from the Lamb, v2, to heal. For John the Spirit was there at the cross, poured out with the water and the blood from Jesus’ pierced side. So the Tree of life, then, v2, is the cross. The ever-seasonable fruit is Christ’s own body and blood for us. So the Spirit washes us in Holy Baptism, heals us by the fruit of The Tree. Thus we are healed indeed by the Spirit through the Son from the Father! And that, by the way, is the scene in our east window…Christ and His cross, the glory of the Father, the descent of the Spirit as a dove, the river of life flowing into four streams, the Tree of Life there with its healing leaves and fruit, the blossoming desert…the abundant life with God!
And for those who have been united with Christ in faith, washed in the Water of Life, healed by the Tree of Life; for them, for us, v4, “They will see His face, and His name will be on their foreheads. There will be no more night. They will not need a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever.” Just try to imagine the reality behind those words! Incredible, impossible to believe…but as the angel says, v6, “These words are trustworthy and true.”
What an education John gives us. He shows us how to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land. Neither a despairing lament of helplessness nor a tune of blustering, bullying bravado. This song in the Book of Revelation murmurs with the serenity to accept the things we cannot change about this strange world. The melody pulses with the warm-blooded courage to change the things we can change about this strange world. But this song always embodies in Christ that counterpoint of wisdom that knows the difference between what we can change about the world and what we cannot change. A song worthy to learn and sing!
Aye, but it is a song that takes a lifetime and then some to fully learn. Clearly, 10 years after that awful morning we are still so far from knowing it very well. But once again today, this Rally Sunday, v17, “The Spirit and the Bride [that is, the Bride of Christ, the Church] say, ‘Come!’ And let him who hears say, ‘Come!’ Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life.” Come, drink deeply here of Christ by His Word. Come, wet your whistle once again, and sing the Lord’s song again and again, because the world we inhabit can be so strange. Come!
And now finally, v21, “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God’s people…” His grace be with you all.