Apocalypse Now? Worship
Pastor Marissa Jadrich Ortiz – August 23, 2020
Church I’m so glad you decided to spend some time in the book of revelation with us this morning. We’re giving you some Revelation highlights in this 3 sermon series. So I really encourage all of you to read the rest of it for yourself! I would love to hear what you think. I highly recommend the Bible Project’s introduction to Revelation. They have 2 short videos that do an amazing job at fitting all the pieces of this book together. I put a link in your announcement email so you can check it out.
We’re in the middle of a book of prophecy that is also a letter and also an apocalypse, a special kind of writing that uses powerful images to show what’s happening behind the scenes of ordinary life, at a spiritual level. In the story, John our author is on his way to receive a special message for God’s church.
John takes a long time actually get to this message so I’m going to give you a sneak peek at that scroll to tide you over: short story, Jesus schooled all the other powers in the world by living his whole life in the power and freedom of the Holy Spirit, basically living like that 24/7 worship of God is really true and all the caesars and centurions out there are just a bunch of chumps. They killed him for it, but Jesus came back alive which proved that he was right and they were all as previously mentioned a bunch of chumps.
Our job as the church is the same as Jesus—to be witnesses to the real truth of God being in charge by living our whole lives that way, not letting Anyone or anything else lay claim to our faithfulness or act like our source of power (not even ourselves). Living like Jesus, always means the possibility of dying like Jesus. But John says that when the world sees the church’s witness, people everywhere will give up on their other powers and follow Jesus instead. And that’s what God has been after all along—not just a church of followers, but a whole world of worshipers. That’s why our witness matters so much.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. John is ready for his special message to the churches that I just spoiled for you, he sees it written on a on a scroll in God’s hand. But there’s a problem. Nobody is allowed to open the scroll. It’s too important for any of the angels to touch. Until finally—Jesus is on the scene! But Jesus looks pretty out of place in this glorious heavenly throne room scene:
Then, in between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders, I saw a Lamb, standing as if it had been slain. It had seven horns and seven eyes, which are God’s seven spirits, sent out into the whole earth. He came forward and took the scroll from the right hand of the one seated on the throne.
Okay so Jesus is introduced here as a slain lamb. Some of us have heard this too often and that seems like a normal thing for Jesus to be. Church, a slain lamb is covered in blood. It reminds one more of a meat packing plant than an angelic creature. Unlike what one might expect from a powerful leader here on earth, dying is part of Jesus’ power. Remember seven signifies completion, the whole thing. Horns in the Bible are symbols of power. And John tells us the eyes represent the Holy Spirit. So because of his sacrificial death, this deadnowalive lamb Jesus has all the power, and he is present through the whole world through the holy spirit. That is what is up for Jesus right now. And Jesus is the key that opens the message.
But before John gets to see the secret message there’s chapters and chapters of doom and plagues and destruction. Remember we’re still using our Apocalypse reading glasses here. John’s not telling us about something that’s going to happen one day, he’s dramatically illustrating how much the status quo is already really really not working for humanity.
Let’s just take for example, the four horsemen of the apocalypse. Because it’s such a classic.
First there’s the conquest and domination horse, wielding his bow and wearing his crown. Then there’s the civil unrest horse, people killing other people. Then there’s the famine horse, outrageous prices for basic goods while somehow the luxury items are still available to the rich. And finally, death from disease or any other cause. Church, this is not a description of God’s will for earth. This is no God ordained war or conquest. This is a description of the actual world we live in. Where repeatedly throughout history and in the present day, military conquest and political expansion leads to violence and bloodshed and chaos. The breakdown expands into hunger and limited access to basic resources, and deaths of every kind proliferate. It doesn’t take a special envoy from a wrathful God to wreak this kind of havoc. It’s what we already do as humans.
God’s wrath is a real thing, church. But I want to take just a minute to think about what it means. One way to see it is that God is angry about people being bad, and God wants them to know it by beating them up. And along with it comes this story that Jesus saved us because God took out all that anger on Jesus, beat him up instead, and that’s how we get to go to heaven.
A different story says that the good world God made thrives under God’s rule. Flourishing and life and joy and well-being aren’t rewards God bestows to those who belong to God, it’s the same as belonging to God. So when someone turns their back on God, it’s not a problem for God’s ego. It’s a problem for that person. Because they don’t have the capacity to be their own god. That ship is going to run aground. And when you multiply the problems with this kind of rebellion across millions of people, across human institutions, across generations of families, you get a world full of evil proliferating in horrible directions.
To use the classic example, you might ask yourself, would you tell a child “don’t touch that stove or you’ll get burned?” or would you say “don’t touch that stove or I will burn you?” These are both serious warnings but one of them is also child abuse. What kind of response to we expect from God to human rebellion?
I don’t mean this to sound like God isn’t angry about evil or God doesn’t care about righting wrongs. I want you to see though that God gets angry about evil because it’s killing the people God loves. Not the other way around.
John’s including all this horror so we can see the stakes of the mission the church is about to receive. This destructive cycle of humans giving up on God and ruining themselves through allegiance to other powers, this is exactly what Jesus overcame! And the main job, or one might say, the great commission of the church, is to demonstrate that freedom through belonging to God, so the whole world can get out of this mess! By living faithfully under allegiance to God, saying “thanks but no thanks” to all the other powers in our world, that’s what shows our fellow humans that they don’t have to serve these beasts that just take and take, that promise us security but actually perpetuate violence.
Ready? We finally made it to chapter 11 when John tells us what he found in the scroll that Jesus opened. It’s the story of how the church follows in Jesus footsteps to bring the whole world into worship of the the one true God. Here’s how it starts, in John’s dramatic apocalypse writing style.
I will allow my two witnesses to prophesy for one thousand two hundred sixty days, wearing mourning clothes. These are the two olive trees and the two lampstands that stand before the Lord of the earth.
There’s a couple things in these 2 sentences that are intuitive to John’s readers in Turkey that were not so intuitive to me. Our protagonists here are witnesses, and John tells us they are also olive trees and lampstands. The lampstands is a reference to earlier in the book, when John is describing the seven churches. He sees them as lamp stands in the throne room. The lamps and the olive trees have something in common which is…oil! Oil is associated with anointing, which means being chosen by God, and with the Holy Spirit, which God gives to the ones who are chosen. So the scroll is telling a story about the church and our special role as witnesses.
Why two witnesses? This is another Old Testament reference, where you need 2 witnesses before a testimony is valid in court. This is exactly what the church does—when we’re being the church well—we’re bearing witness to the same truth, and it carries some real weight, it stands up in court, because we’re doing it together. Now these 1,260 days. This is three and a half years. Now you remember the number seven, that means “the whole thing”. So three and a half means…not the whole thing. It means, it’s gonna start out like this, but it’s not the end of the story.
Finally, these witnesses are wearing mourning clothes. The outward symbol of repentance. Their message is an invitation for people to turn away from evil and from alliances with the powers of darkness, and give their loyalty, their love and faithfulness, to God. See we didn’t need Jesus to know how bad the world was, but we sure did need Jesus to know that there was something better. To know how wide open God’s door is to returning sinners. Now it’s the church’s job to do the same for a world getting trampled by those apocalyptic horsemen.
If anyone wants to hurt them, fire comes out of their mouth and burns up their enemies. So if anyone wants to hurt them, they have to be killed in this way. They have the power to close up the sky so that no rain will fall for as long as they prophesy. They also have power over the waters, to turn them into blood, and to strike the earth with any plague, as often as they wish.
These are references to the great prophets of the Old testament. It’s john’s way of saying, these witnesses (the church, us) have all the holy spirit power of all the previous prophets combined. This is a powerful testimony.
When they have finished their witnessing, the beast that comes up from the abyss will make war on them, gain victory over them, and kill them. Their dead bodies will lie on the street of the great city that is spiritually called Sodom and Egypt, where also their Lord was crucified. And for three and a half days, members of the peoples, tribes, languages, and nations will look at their dead bodies, but they won’t let their dead bodies be put in a tomb. Those who live on earth will rejoice over them. They will celebrate and give each other gifts, because these two prophets had brought such pain to those who live on earth.
In the end, after all that amazing witnessing, they get killed by the Beast. The beast is one way that John describes the forces of evil and idolatry behind the Roman Empire which ruled the world of his readers. Now he has borrowed that image of the Beast straight out of the pages of Daniel, who was writing about an entirely different empire, Babylon. it’s John’s way of saying, the puppet has changed, but it’s the same hand pulling the strings, making it do the same dance. In fact, John runs together all the evil powers he can think of at once—he calls the it the great city, which usually means Rome which thrived through military and economic oppression of its subjects, but also Sodom, known for its cruelty to the poor, and Egypt, known for its slavery and infanticide, and Jerusalem, where Jesus was killed.
When the witnesses die, it’s good news for all the people and places that don’t worship God. But it only lasts for three and a half days. Remember what three and a half means? It means “started out like this, but not the end of the story.”
“But after three and a half days, the breath of life from God entered them, and they stood on their feet. Great fear came over those who saw them. Then they heard a loud voice from heaven say to them, ‘Come up here.’ And they went up to heaven in a cloud, while their enemies watched them. At that hour there was a great earthquake, and a tenth of the city fell. Seven thousand people were killed by the earthquake, and the rest were afraid and gave glory to the God of heaven.”
This is the real turning point in the story, and it’s easy to miss the happy ending here because it’s wrapped up in more Old Testament references. As these witnesses are vindicated through life, a tenth of the city falls, that’s seven thousand people, and EVERYONE ELSE repents and starts worshiping God. Now I thought the seven thousand sounds pretty bad. But this is another throwback. A lot of times when Old Testament prophets warned the people of God to repent or their nation would be destroyed, they talked about how destruction would come to the whole nation except for 10 percent. This little remnant that would make it through. Or one time God told the prophet Elijah that yeah the whole nation seems to have given up to worship false gods, but there’s this little huddle of seven thousand people out there who still believe God. John is flipping the Old Testament story on its head. He’s saying that before the church starts living out its mission to continue the witness of Jesus in the world, it seemed like only a few people were living faithfully. It seemed like only a small percentage were willing to repent. But after their witness, it was the opposite. 90% of the world worships God. Everyone except for a few thousand people turn away from their idols. That’s a real possibility for how the story ends, if the church hears this word and takes seriously our calling to be Jesus’ witnesses in the world.
The heart of John’s apocalypse message is that the powers in our world react to our worship and witness with violence because they’re trying to uphold a lie that their power is really endless and irresistible. And the one thing that totally exposes their lie is when somebody lives their whole life under a different power. When somebody acts to heal, love, preach, prophecy, and reprimand through the power of God’s Spirit. When someone’s not afraid to tell the powerful people that they’re not the top dog, and not afraid to tell the poorest and most oppressed that there is hope, life and freedom for them. When someone’s conviction about the truth is absolutely unshakable, even through torture and death. Once the Powers That Be have killed someone, there’s nothing else they can do to prove their point. So maybe they’ve silenced someone but that wasn’t really a surrender. They didn’t really win. And then if that person comes back from the dead, it’s really the end for them. Everyone can see that the Powers that Be been faking it all along.
This is Jesus’ life story. But John’s real point is that this is the life story of every follower of Jesus. John doesn’t tell us that every Christian will be killed but that every person who means to faithfully follow Jesus must be willing to die.
I bet you’ve already had this moment with someone you love. Where you realize, you know I really would die for this person I love them so much. I would jump in front of a speeding train to save them from harm. But don’t ask me to pick up their wet towel off the bathroom floor. Or don’t ask me to apologize for that little thing I said when I was in a bad mood. There’s all these small acts of faithfulness and love that somehow seem harder to do than jumping in front of a train.
That’s what Revelation is calling us to in our discipleship. John says, you might be called to suffer and die alongside Jesus. You better be ready to say yes to that. But EVERY DAY you are DEFINITELY called to make choices with your wallet, with your career, with your family, that aren’t jumping in front of train moments. They’re uncomfortable, or they make other people uncomfortable. They feel like risks because they mean opting out of some security. I don’t know what those faithful witness choices look like for you, but I know you are absolutely called to live like you belong to only Jesus. I know that if you’d be doing more or less the same things without Jesus in your life that’s probably an invitation to see a lot more uncomfortable Jesus opportunities around you. I know that a worshiping witness is the only thing that’s going to bring hope, healing, and reconciliation with God to the people God loves that you interact with every day.
Our faithfulness has the power to change the world. To break cycles of violence, abuse, destruction, and death. And that means that nothing in our lives is too small or too big to belong to God. So spend some time in prayer this week. Pay attention to where the power is in your life. What do you spend your time on, what do you look to to make sure you’re good enough, what do you depend on for your security or comfort? And ask Jesus what it would look like for you to live as a witness to God’s rule over those things.
There’s a moment, after the four horsemen, when the martyrs ask God, “how long are you going to let this go on?” And God answers, “hang on, there’s a couple more folks who are going to continue your witness even to death.” Now we know that’s not like a divine death quota there. I really think it was God’s way of saying “YOUR sacrifice is going to be so worth it if the church on earth finishes the job you started through their own faithful witness all the way!” That’s us, church. The world is waiting for us to show them what it looks like to worship God and not any other power. It’s not going to be easy but it’s going to be so worth it.