There is so much fear, grief, anger and frustration going on right now and I confess that I don’t have the answers to make it stop. The last school shooting hit close to home for me. I was born one town over and the Episcopal priest in Uvalde is a dear friend of mine. Others of you have been touched more by different events, sometimes very personal events, and other times just the incessant nature of disturbing world news.
This will be my last sermon on the Revelation of John. Some of you may be grateful they are over but hopefully some of you have found hope in John’s message and perhaps some clarification. I do think his message is especially relevant now, though I caution you about connecting the events in this vision too closely with any specific events happening now. Jesus said in Matthew 24:36 and reiterated in 25:13 that no one, not even the angels or himself knew when he would return and put an end to all the evil in this world, but he cautioned us to remain alert and be prepared.
Before we begin chapter 15 I want you to think back about the story of the first Passover. I mentioned a few weeks ago how important that story was to understanding Revelation. It is especially important for this next section.
Joseph had been second in command in Egypt, but over the years the relationship between the children of Israel and the Egyptians deteriorated and by the time Moses was born, Pharaoh was ordering the death of all male infants and requiring forced labor for everyone else. The people cried to God who raised up Moses and then sent him to deliver them across the Red Sea into the wilderness and eventually Joshua took them across the Jordon to the promised land. Ten plagues, each one a little worse than the previous preceded their release. I think we assume that because God is all knowing that he could bypass involving human choice in the process of history, but that is never how God works. Pharoah could have let the people go at Moses’ first request and saved his people a lot of misery, but that is not how it played out.
John is telling his audience that the time is coming when God will hear their cries of anguish and will pour out his wrath on the evil doers who are oppressing them just like he did when he rescued their ancestors from Egypt. Chapter 15 recounts the songs of praise to God that are being sung as seven angels prepare seven plagues to unleash on the earth. In chapter 16, the bowls containing the plagues are poured out one by one: 1) painful boils that only affect those who had worshiped the beast, 2) the sea turns to blood, 3) rivers and springs turn to blood with an angel explaining that they had spilled the blood of the saints therefore they would have blood to drink 4) extreme heat from the sun 5) darkness and we are told the people still did not repent 6) the river Euphrates dries up removing a natural barrier and allowing the kings to go to war. Psalm 78:34 says , “When he slew them, they would seek him…” in other words, when God withdrew his hand of protection and let the people suffer the consequences of their behavior, his people would wake-up, repent, turn to God and change their ways and thus the consequences. John tells us this time, even that did not work.
Before the last plague is released an “unclean spirit” comes out of the mouth of the dragon, the beast, and the false prophet. John describes them as like 3 frogs. Frogs was one of the plagues of Egypt, but these froglike evil spirits hop all over the world performing signs and gathering the kings of the world at Mount Megiddo or Harmageddon for a great battle against Jesus and his followers. It as become known in English as Armageddon. Megiddo was a town in Israel that was captured several times by the Egyptians. A couple of Israel’s kings died there. It has been abandoned since about 450 BC. It is a bit like some of the Civil War battlefields scattered around Virginia. Even in its present silence, it screams of death.
When the last plague is poured out, the angel says, “It is done!” echoing the words of Christ on the cross. Violent earthquakes and giant hail tear up the earth with “Babylon” i.e. Rome being the primary recipient of God’s wrath.
In chapter 17 we are introduced to the “whore of Babylon”. This is a polemic against the religious authorities in Jerusalem who collaborated with Rome and who used Rome to have Jesus crucified. If this seems like odd language for the Bible, read the prophet Hosea, who marries a prostitute as what we call a prophetic sign act to show the people how they are treating God. John says that Babylon will despise the whore , “make her desolate and naked.” This is exactly what happened. Israel’s love affair with Rome came to a violent end. There were two Jewish revolts against Rome. The First Jewish Roman War from 66-73 saw the destruction of the temple which has never been rebuilt and two additional rebellions in 115-117 and 132-136 further destroyed the city and dispersed the people. Under the Emperor Hadrian Judaism was banned.
In chapter 18 we see the fall of Babylon (Rome) itself. This did not actually occur until 476 CE many years after this was written, but John anticipated God’s judgement on Rome and its ultimate fall.
Now we get another rider on a white horse. This one’s name is Faithful and True, The Word of God and King of Kings and Lord of Lords. This rider is Jesus. Here is our knight in shining armor riding out to defeat all the forces of evil. He throws the beast and the false prophet into the lake of fire and he kills the rest of their army with a sword coming from his mouth – the truth.
An angel locks Satan up for 1000 years after which time he must be let out again. During Satan’s imprisonment the martyrs, those who had died because of their faith in Christ are raised and rule with Christ for a thousand years.
This is the part that so many people today take literally. It also gets attached to Jesus’s statement about one being taken and another left behind in Matt 24:40 which is probably talking about the uncertainty of life, thus the need to stay prepared for our own death. It doesn’t fit our earthly timeline. If this were the case, the “rapture” should have taken place about the time of the destruction of Rome, and the martyrs ruled with Christ for 1000 years. It is tempting to see Christendom as this 1000 year reign, though we know that the Church ruled in a very un-Christlike way much of the time.
John says that Satan will once again “deceive the nations” and gather for battle against Jerusalem, “the beloved city” only this time fire from heaven destroys those who seek to destroy the faithful and Satan in cast into the Lake of Fire with his cronies, the beast and the false prophet. This is the final battle, it is held on a cosmic level and I suspect it is more symbolic than actual.
There is a final judgement of the dead and then Death and Hades are also thrown into the Lake of Fire.
This is John’s vision of the triumph of good over evil by the Word of God, Christ the Lamb.
Here comes out happily ever after.
John sees a new heaven and new earth – this is not we die and go to heaven, but in the fullness of time, God restores all of creation to order, both the physical and spiritual realms, the way God intended it to be in the beginning. We are told the sea is no more. To John ‘s audience, the sea was dangerous; it was the source of chaos and terrible monsters. That is no more.
No more is there a separation between the heavenly realm and the earthly realm. We are told that “the home of God is among mortals (Rev 21: 3)
Now one of the angels that had poured out a bowl of plagues offers to show John a different image. “Come I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.” (Rev 21:10) and he takes him to a mountain were he can look down and see the city of Jerusalem. No longer occupied by Romans, no longer ravaged by war, The city now has “a radiance like a rare jewel” (Rev 21: 11). The names of the twelve tribes of Israel are inscribed on the twelve gates and the name of the twelve disciples are inscribed on the twelve foundations of the city. There was no temple in the city because God and Jesus are the temple. The temple was always the place where God met humans, through the mediation of the high priest, but there is no need for a temple anymore because God is dwelling with all persons. There is no sun or moon or stars because God is the light which shines through Jesus and illuminates everything. John is drawing from many different books of the Old Testament bringing together all the positive phrases of what life is like when God’s will is done by everyone all the time.
John closes with an affirmation from Jesus that the words in this book are “trustworthy and true” (Rev 22: 6) with blessings for those who avail themselves of Christ’s gift of the waters of life and curses on anyone who attempts to corrupt by addition or subtraction from the words of this book. John is speaking of his writing, not the Bible as we know it. That did not exist as a unified whole until a couple hundred years later. And finally with the affirmation that Jesus is returning soon.
This past Thursday was Ascension Day. The reading from Acts on that day reiterates that we are not to concern ourselves with when God will restore the kingdom, but to wait for the Holy Spirit and then be witnesses to the ends of the earth (Acts 1::7-8) concerning the statement we make at the Eucharist – “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” So what do we do with John’s Revelation. We don’t try to calculate when Jesus will return or who the anti-Christ is. We pray for those who are undergoing persecution now. We remain faithful even when things seem to be falling apart. We find hope in the knowledge that God is ultimately in control and justice will prevail in the end. We stay alert, guarding our souls against false prophets and apathy and we keep doing the next right thing, giving glory to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.