I have preached on a number of hard texts over the years. None harder than the passage I was recently assigned at Kings Church Durham: Revelation 15-16. Seven angels bearing seven plague-bowls emerge from the heavenly tabernacle… and all heaven breaks loose. It is the account of the final series of divine judgment in the extraordinary Apocalypse that closes our canon.
The final exhaustion of the fury of God.
It is the bloodiest, most gruesome text I have ever been assigned.
There are certain stereotypes about preachers I have no wish to personally reinforce or confirm. One is of the hell-fire/damnation/brimstone preacher who pounds the pulpit, blood veins ready to burst from excitement about announcing God’s wrath. And Kings Church is far, far away from upholding that sort of model as well.
But our text was the seven bowls. And so I preached on reddened waters hurling deathly waves against fleeing shores while men and women gnaw their tongues in anguish and anger. I had to. My text was on those bowls. Those seven bowls.
And while the ghastly contents of the bowls are being doused onto the earth, heaven is singing.
My approach was to make no apologies for the passage, to make no attempt to soften the graphic imagery. My attempt, rather, was to generate some perspectival shift that made the realities of the text more understandable. Revelation is apocalyptic literature, a recognizable genre for an ancient Jewish context. It is marked by imaginative writing. Taking such writing literally is irresponsible. The purpose of an apocalypse is to gouge a peephole into the metaphysical fabric that we might have a look into another realm. An apocalypse (stemming from a Greek verb meaning “to reveal”) slits open the celestial curtains a bit that we might glimpse realities beyond normal categories of reportage. An apocalypse generates a perspective shift. That was the strategy in my sermon.
But what perspective is required for one to be okay with the brutal outpouring of divine wrath to the beat of resounding worship in heaven?
Here is a link to the podcast if anyone is interested: The Final Exodus (Rev 15-16) | Andrew Byers (better give it a few minutes to upload). Below is a snapshot.
Earthly Cacophony | Heavenly Symphony
John the Seer carefully crafted this section in Revelation. He intends that his audience recognizes the inter-relation between the happenings on earth and the happenings in heaven. And amidst the maddening afflictions on Creation and unrepentant humanity in Rev 15-16, there is a responsive liturgy and a few praise sets.
[quote style=”boxed” float=”right”]And they sing the Song of Moses… and the Song of the Lamb… (Rev 15:3)[/quote]
Those doing the singing are saints who have endured nightmarish persecution. They stand next to God. They have been given harps.
When the third angel’s bowls transform the earth’s freshwater sources into blood, over the sound of rivulets and waterfalls flowing dark and red, there is the sound of an angel in worship announcing, “Just are you, O Holy One… it is what they deserve.” From the heavenly altar comes, “Yes, Lord God the Almighty…”
[quote style=”boxed” float=”left”]Yes, Lord God the Almighty, true and just are your judgments! (Rev 16:7)[/quote]
“Yes, Lord”? Men and women are screaming from sores, the sea creatures are floating on stinking red waves, and the heavenly cry is “Yes, Lord!”?
Alongside the sounds of hailstones smashing and bursting, alongside the howling of humans in pain, are the sounds of worshipful singing and the strumming of harps. Divine judgment has become the occasion of triumphant worship. Don’t forget the responsive liturgy underway above. While tongues are being gnawed in Babylon, tongues are declaring praise in heaven. Don’t forget the sounds of “just and true are your ways,” and “it is what they deserve,” and “yes, Lord” while blood-waves crash the shores of fleeing islands and human beings scratch their ugly sores.
What sort of perspective shift makes divine judgment to the soundtrack of harps and praise-music palatable or understandable?
It is quite easy to judge the judgment of God. But to pass judgment on God’s own judgment of the blatantly wicked may well be a luxury of the un-afflicted, the luxury of those who have never felt the wicked hissing violent death-threats into their ears. To view God’s fury as unjustified reveals the fact that as eager as we may be to fight injustice, many of us don’t really know what it means to be treated unjustly.
Revelation is written to a marginalized people group—1st century Christians—who are squirming beneath the crushing weight of the mighty. Our own perspective from relative security and wealth can inhibit our reading of the text.
But if you are a mother clutching your baby and inebriated men who have invaded your village are prodding your back with machetes while telling you all the awful things they are about to do, then Revelation 15 and 16 may be the kind of text you can sing to.
I was told once when planning a trip to a certain part of the world not to give money to the dismembered children on the streets. It funds gang activity. Thugs would take streetkids, mess them up grotesquely, then make them beg. Amputated limbs increased sympathy, and thus also profits, profits that none of the injured kids got to enjoy. I’ve read about roaming militias sometimes ransacking villages, doing nightmarish things to women and children. Some of those children are taken as sex slaves or trained to become miniature soldiers. I’ve read about instances when men have dismembered kids and force-fed the limbs to their mothers. And even worse things. Worse things.
Do we have a Gospel to preach strong enough for the oppressed locked within brutal, authoritarian systems? Have we a story strong enough for a kid whose mother is shouting for help in the other room and no help ever comes? The ugly imagery of Revelation 15-16 depicts a divine passion for justice that can make abducted children one day sing. We have a story to tell that can cause victims of the sex trade to shout one day in triumph. We have a God to proclaim who can make the martyred dead take up harps.
I am miserably uncomfortable with the scenery and sounds of Revelation 15-16. I took no relish in wrestling through that series of seven… except in this one thing: that the abused and victimized of the world can know that Someone saw what was done in the night, Someone hated it, and Someone will one day bring a finalizing justice.
Now, Revelation does not urge the victimized Christians to take up arms. God and his heavenly host are the only avengers. And repentance is ever possible for the wicked in Revelation. Twice we are told that those suffering the plagues refuse to repent (16:9, 11). In my sermon, I took these references to mean that God was open to receiving confession and repentance to the very end. Though I think that is possible, after talking with my friend Pete Gower, I think the main point is that those suffering are those who were given plenty of opportunities to turn from evil (remember the previous successions of judgment) but did not.
Finally, here is the scariest part of this section of Revelation. It is the reality that the Dragon doesn’t look like a dragon, that the harlot does not look like a harlot, that the Beast does not look very bestial. Are we aligned with draconic, demonic forces perpetuating injustice… and not even aware of it?
Lord Jesus come. Come quickly….