9th Sunday After Pentecost, August 14, 2011
“Then the seven angels who had the seven trumpets prepared to sound them.” And the music is going to be unforgettable! It will bring down the house.
The vision here is so very reminiscent of Joshua and the battle of Jericho. Seven priests carry seven trumpets of rams’ horns. Six days they circle the city one time each day…in complete silence. But on the seventh day, it’s seven times around and at Joshua’s command the seven priests with their seven trumpets cut loose. And the walls came a-tumbling down.
Except now here in John’s vision it’s not a Canaanite city, it’s the whole world gone Canaanite…now with the blast of the seven trumpets, to come a tumbling down. V7, “The first angel sounded his trumpet, and there came hail and fire mixed with blood, and it was hurled down on the earth. A third of the earth was burned up, a third of the trees were burned up, and all the green grass was burned up.”
V8, “The second angel sounded his trumpet, and something like a huge mountain, all ablaze, was thrown into the sea. A third of the sea turned into blood, a third of the living creatures in the sea died, and a third of the ships were destroyed.”
V10, “The third angel sounded his trumpet, and a great star, blazing like a torch, fell from the sky on a third of the rivers and on the springs of water—the name of the star is Wormwood [which means “bitter”]. A third of the waters turned bitter, and many people died from the waters that had become bitter.”
V12, “The fourth angel sounded his trumpet, and a third of the sun was struck, a third of the moon, and a third of the stars, so that a third of them turned dark. A third of the day was without light, and also a third of the night.”
This isn’t about carbon footprints or global climate change. This is just plain cataclysm on a large scale. The repetition of “one third” is not so much a literal proportion as it is an expression of the scope of this cataclysm. Devastating indeed, but not yet the entire earth.
After the first quartet finishes, V13, an eagle appears to say that as bad as these 4 have been, worse is yet to come. “Oy, oy, oy,” he cries, “to the inhabitants of the earth.”
Now in chapter 9 we get trumpets 5 and 6. It is very strange. V1, “The fifth angel sounded his trumpet, and I saw a star that had fallen from the sky to the earth. The star was given the key to the shaft of the Abyss.” That fallen star is Lucifer, Satan. The Abyss is hell. In v2 he opens the Abyss. And like Pandora’s Box, out comes all sorts of dark things. Thick smoke blankets the air. V3, And out of the smoke…locusts…oh, not just ordinary locusts but locusts with the power of scorpions.
V4, “They were told not to harm the grass of the earth or any plant or tree, but only those people who did not have the seal of God on their foreheads. They were not allowed to kill them but only to torture them for five months [another symbolic number meaning a limited time]. During those days people will seek death but will not find it….”
Now understand…John sees a vision. Yes, the vision is literal but that doesn’t mean that some sort of atomic-mutation locusts are going to appear on earth someday like an old Godzilla movie. What the vision portrays by these strange locusts is a spiritual torment, a deep angst, a sense of meaninglessness that will be so consuming that death will be welcomed; day after day nothing, with nothing to live for because there is nothing worth dying for.
And like something out of Harry Potter, John describes these hellish locusts there in v7. They’re a combination of human and inhuman, natural and supernatural. But chiefly, V11, their king is that fallen angel, in Hebrew Abaddon, in Greek Apollyon…both mean the same thing: Destroyer. It’s Satan. An ominous trumpet!
Trumpet #6, v13, is like the 6th seal. Hell literally breaks loose. In v14, the 4 angels holding back The End, from chapter 7, are commanded now to let it go, and a destroying army rides out. Strange, strange creatures, v17. Like horses clad in armor of fire and brimstone, with heads like fire-breathing lions, and tails like poisonous snakes. Clouds of fire and sulfur surround them. And it’s death, death, death. Not a pretty picture. Yet, v20, “The rest of mankind who were not killed by these plagues still did not repent of the work of their hands….”
So…what is all of this? Well, John tells us in chapters 10 and 11, but for a moment it would be good to ponder what he has been given to see. Some contemporary spins on Revelation get so specific about setting a date for these visions (like that guy back in May) that a person could almost program his I-phone. “Beep-beep. Ooh, looks like it’s about time for Satan to open the gate of the Abyss.” No, that’s not the purpose of the visions!
Like the vision of 7 seals, so now with these 7 trumpets…the vision announces cataclysms which have been known on earth for centuries and will likely happen in the future. Meteorites (“like a blazing mountain”) in pre-history and in modern times have been known to crash into earth with massive devastation. Volcanoes have buried civilizations. Atlantis-like cities have been swallowed up in the sea. Meaninglessness has seized hearts and minds in this or that era of history.
The point is that these things happen…have happened…will happen…yet the bulk of humanity lives in cluelessness. Day by day, one foot in front of another, cradle to grave…clueless.
The visions are crying out: “Get a clue, people!” But not…not…not…as this Book is so often used. The clue is not: “Be afraid, be very afraid!” No! The visions declare that there is still joy even in the midst of devastating sorrows. Even in the midst of cataclysmic death there remains life. But…only by one Person. No, not some vaguely spiritual sort of God…but in the God who loved this devastated, cataclysmic world so much that He Himself took on flesh and became part of it in Jesus, lashing the destiny of earth to the destiny of the Son. And Jesus is all over this vision!
As here now in chapter 10. We get another angel, very spectacular, glory of the Lord and all that. V2, He holds a little scroll. He stands with one foot on the land and one foot in the sea because his message is for the whole earth. V7, “in the days when the seventh angel is about to sound his trumpet, the mystery of God will be accomplished…” The mystery of God fulfilled. “Finished,” as St. John alone of the four Gospels records Jesus say from the cross.
So that’s not a Book of Revelation thing. That’s a Jesus Christ, crucified and raised up again, thing. The mystery of God is salvation for all sinful people by the death of the innocent Christ. Holy blood shed for unholy people. In His weakness, our strength. In His death, our life. John’s readers needed to know that as the Roman locusts swarmed their world. We need to know it, as each morning the news bugs us with more and more announcements that sound like they’re coming from the depths of the Abyss.
In Christ, the mystery of God is fulfilled. So the visions tell us that in Christ we need not fear even though the earth give way into hellishness. In Christ we shall live even if we die by the world’s hellishness. But…not everyone has a clue about this. So the message, that scroll which John must eat in his vision, tastes sweet yet, because of clueless humanity, it ends up leaving a bitter taste. And that brings us at last to chapter 11, a vision filled with images of Good Friday and Easter.
Briefly now, because our clock is running out…John measures the temple, v1, a common Biblical metaphor of judgment…but only the outer court, not the holy place because that belongs to God. So those in the outer court who do not belong to God are measured, judged. Those in the holy place of Christ are not.
V3, “And I will appoint My two witnesses, and they will prophesy for 1,260 days…” [Another symbolic number, roughly 3½ years, the length of Jesus’ earthly ministry]. V5, “If anyone tries to harm them, fire comes from their mouths and devours their enemies [for John, it’s the fire of the Word]…. They have power to shut up the heavens 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.” Think Moses. Think Elijah. Think Jesus. V7, “Now when they have finished their testimony, the beast that comes up from the Abyss will attack them, and overpower and kill them.” It’s a very Roman beast…but we’ll get that next week.
God will establish His witness, but the people who are not His own will kill it. It happened to the Old Testament prophets. It happens ultimately to Jesus, so it happens to His Church on earth. And yet, v11, “…the breath of life from God entered them, and they stood on their feet, and terror struck those who saw them. Then they heard a loud voice from heaven saying to them, “Come up here.” And they went up to heaven in a cloud, while their enemies looked on.” Images of the Resurrection, the Ascension.
As Israel of old died in Babylon, yet was raised up to return to the Promised Land, so Jesus is crucified and raised up, ascended, so His Church may die in this land or that land, but finally the gates of hell itself will not prevail against His Church.
So…at last the 7th trumpet sounds. It’s Easter and we cue George Friderick Handel, v15: “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Messiah [His Christ], and He shall reign for ever and ever.” Hallelujah! Hallelujah! And the vision ends as before, v16, with another awesome, joyful scene in heaven.
Yeah, things are getting darker in this Book…yet the light of faith continues to blaze more strongly yet. The world knows, has known, will know some rocky rides…but the Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not nor ever will overcome it. And with every hellish thing that can emerges in our world…it is but another reminder, another birth pain, groaning toward that glory which is yet to come…for all who belong to Christ.