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Of Spirit, Bride and the Warmest Invitation

 

 Revelation 22:8-17      Daniel 7:9-10 

 

Anyone who knows me at all knows that I have little time for sentimentality.  And therefore whenever I am moved I like to think that what moves me is eversomuch deeper than sentimentality.  I am always moved when I read the text for today’s sermon.  “The Spirit and the Bride say ‘Come’.  And let him who hears say ‘Come.’  And let him who is thirsty come, let him who desires take the water of life without price.”

It’s a word of invitation, a word of promise, a word of profound comfort.  I find it the warmest word of scripture arising within the most violent book of scripture.

You will have noticed that this text is found at the very end of John’s treatise.  In order to grasp what it means, then; in order to grasp the overwhelming force of its invitation and promise and comfort we have to understand why John wrote his book and what he aimed to do through it.

We all know that the book of Revelation has been misused time and again.  Religious eccentrics have long cherished it as the grab-bag out of which they can pull any religious oddity at all.

Those of us who think of ourselves as non-eccentric; we still find the notions in it bizarre and the pictures bloody: a river of gore that flows up to the level of a horse’s bridle, a dragon that fumes and spews as it slays God’s people.

Paradoxically, this violent book has comforted untold Christians, especially the bereaved.  We read it at virtually every funeral or interment.  “They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more…God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

The truth is, John was a pastor.  He wrote in order to lend encouragement and strength to Christians who were suffering terrible persecution.  A tidal wave of persecution had engulfed the church in the year 65 during the reign of Emperor Nero.  Thirty years later, in the year 95 Emperor Domitian was every bit as cruel.  Another wave of persecution, another wave of torture and death, was bending Christians away from their conviction concerning Jesus Christ and their public confession of him.  John wanted to encourage and strengthen the people who were dear to him.

We don’t read very far into John’s book, however, when we realize that John communicates with his people through pictures.  The pictures are immense, grotesque, and surreal all at once — almost as if they came out of a science-fiction novel.  But they don’t.  They come from the older testament, particularly from the books of Ezekiel and Daniel.  John takes the pictures that his foreparents drew and applies them, in the light of Christ’s truth and triumph, to his suffering congregation.

 

I: —  I have already said that John’s chief purpose is to encourage his people.  But encouragement is not the same as mollycoddling.  John knows that if people are to be helped profoundly they must first hear the truth about themselves.  And so John opens his book with his “Letters To The Seven Churches In The Province Of Asia.”

Now there were certainly more than seven congregations throughout Asia .  But seven is the biblical symbol for completeness or wholeness.  In speaking of the seven churches John is writing about the entire church of Jesus Christ throughout the world.

The church at Ephesus possesses energy and endurance and a sensitive nose for sniffing out theological error.  Good.  Unfortunately, says John, the church at Ephesus also lacks love.  Rightly hating error and evil, it has come to have a frigid heart.  The church at Ephesus is both praised and blamed (as are several other churches, albeit for different reasons.)

The church at Smyrna is praised without qualification.  It has suffered terribly and yet has remained steadfast.  John urges it not to give up.

The church at Thyatira is cautioned: it is currently tempted to compromise, and it must not.  John did not have our modern, cavalier attitude to compromise. Truth is truth; righteousness is righteousness; faithfulness has to be faithfulness and nothing else.

Our foreparents were possessed of greater conviction here than we.  John Bunyan, the best-loved Puritan writer (Pilgrim’s Progress, among 60 other books); John Bunyan was imprisoned in a festering jail for thirteen years.  He had four children, one of whom, Mary, was blind.  Day-by-day Mary, a young teenager, groped and stumbled her way to her father’s cell in order to bring him more food than the jail provided.  Bunyan was near-frantic about Mary.  “If I die in here”, he said (and it was likely that he would) how will my blind daughter survive in the world?  Who will look out for her?” Authorities who saw his concern told him he didn’t have to remain in prison; he could go home that afternoon.  All he had to do was sign a paper saying he would never preach again.  And so Bunyan remained in jail for thirteen years.  Compromise?  The word disgusted him.  After all, the gospel is the gospel; and betrayal is disgraceful.

The church in Laodicaea isn’t praised at all; it is simply blamed.  Nothing good can be said about it.  “Neither hot nor cold”, says John, “about as attractive and useful as a bucket of tepid spit.”  (John’s speech is never dainty; he prefers to be effective.)  Yet there is still hope for the church in Laodicaea.  Jesus Christ has not yet given up on it.  “Behold I stand at the door and knock…”  —  one of the all-time favourite verses.  But not the stained glass picture of the gentle Jesus tap, tap tapping.  He’s hammering on the door.  The congregation in Laodicaea has to wake up.  Our Lord needs to knock loudly enough to wake the dead.

Seven churches.  In other words, you can find churches throughout the entire world just like these.  More to the point, in any one congregation you can find all seven represented.  In any one congregation’s life there are features to be praised, features to be blamed, and sleeping people who need to be awakened.

 

II: —  But if they are awakened, what are they awakened to know?  John tells us in his vision of the sealed scroll.  The question is asked, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?”  The scroll contains God’s plan and purpose in redeeming the world.  Until the scroll is opened God’s redemption won’t be known; more importantly, until the scroll is opened God’s redemption won’t become operative.  Until the scroll is opened, then, the world will only lurch and stagger as it has since the Fall, one step removed from chaos, human beings locked into their depravity and only worsening things whenever they try to wrench the world right.  John is so upset at the prospect of the world’s hopelessness — since no one is worthy to open the scroll — that he weeps.

Then he hears a voice.  “Weep not; lo, the Lion of the Tribe of Judah has conquered; he can open the scroll and its seven seals.”  John looks up, expecting to see the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, the Messiah.  He looks up and looks for a lion, and instead sees a lamb.  The Messiah is a lamb.  And this lamb is haemorrhaging.  This lamb is worthy to open the sealed scroll.

Now the bleeding lamb that John sees is no ordinary lamb; it has seven horns and seven eyes.  Horn is the Hebrew symbol for strength, power, might; eye, the Hebrew symbol for wisdom.  In other words, it is in the crucified one that the world will ultimately be rescued from chaos and bloodshed, for in the crucified one are found the whole wisdom and the whole power of God.

 

III: —  Make no mistake.  It will require the whole wisdom and the whole power of God to save God’s creation from the evil that afflicts it, for evil is unspeakably evil.

How evil it is John tells us in his vision of the plague of locusts.  There are seven plagues in the book of Revelation.  (In other words, the world is whollyafflicted.)  We shall look at one plague only, that of the locusts.

These locusts or grasshoppers are unusual grasshoppers.  They don’t devour grain; they devour men and women.  How can they?  Just look at how big they are: as big as horses, John says.  Their tails have stingers, like a scorpion.  Their antennae are as long and as numerous as a woman’s hair (in other words, nothing escapes their sensory apparatus).  Their scales are like armour-plate.  When they beat their wings they sound like an army of chariots or tanks. John is telling us that evil is immense, evil is a power beyond our imagining, evil is a supernatural power that only the visionary with supernatural vision (like John himself) can describe.  There is one last feature to these fearsome, horse-sized locusts:  THEY HAVE A HUMAN FACE.  “Never forget”, says John, “that while evil is a cosmic power, it wears a human face.”

In my reading of biography and history I have become acquainted with some of the most cruel people the world has seen.  As I read of these people I expected to find men and women whose appearance was subhuman, ogreish, even men and women who appeared monstrous, unrecognizable.  In every case I have been sobered to learn that they were ordinary; so ordinarily human.  They didn’t appear grotesque or nightmarish.  They have been as ordinarily human as you or I.

Adolf Eichmann was noted for the tenderness he had for his family.  Heinrich Himmler was no more notable than the clerk at Mac’s Milk.  Klaus Barbie, the “butcher of Lyons ”; before he perfected his torture-techniques Klaus Barbie was undistinguished.

Speaking of Barbie; when he was extradited from South America and brought to France to stand trial for his wartime torment of French citizens it was assumed that he would be convicted and given the severest sentence possible.  Then the lawyer defending Barbie began letting French skeletons out of the closet.  “You say that Barbie tortured and maimed people in the French resistance movement”, said the lawyer, “but only 1% of France ’s people joined the resistance movement.  Among the other 99% were many who collaborated with the occupation.  The politicians and church-leaders and educators whom we esteem today; many of those who assisted Barbie were among the 99% who didn’t resist.  If the government of France tries Barbie, why doesn’t it try countless French citizens who supported him?”  Evil, however monstrous a power, always wears a human face.  “Furthermore”, continued Barbie’s lawyer, “as bad as German treatment of French people was, French treatment of Algerians has been as bad if not worse.  If you proceed to convict my client, I will name (and ruin) prominent French people who secretly permitted or authorized shocking atrocities with respect to the Algerians.”  All of a sudden many highly placed people in France decided that Barbie’s trial should be concluded as quickly and quietly as possible.

In the 1920s and 30s journalists from Britain and the United States went to Russia .  They saw the Stalinist purges first-hand.  They witnessed Stalin’s systematic starvation of the Ukrainians.  They then wrote newspaper and magazine articles telling the world that Stalin was a good man.  To be sure, he was a bit rough around the edges, but an effective leader nonetheless; what he aimed at was good.  Why, Stalin had even been a theology student at one time.  And so the British and American intelligentsia willfully blinded themselves to what was happening and wrote well of him.  Why are intellectuals (so-called) so very stupid?  Because they cannot believe that evil is evil when they see the smiling human face.  Naively, intellectuals assume that the smiling human face can’t be evil; they don’t realize that a human face is the principal face evil wears.

 

IV: —  Then what is to be done in the wake of this?  How are Christians to act?  We move now to another of John’s visions, the vision of the little scroll.  The big scroll, we saw a minute ago, the big scroll only the slain lamb could unseal and unleash.  The little scroll contains the same message as the big scroll. John is told to eat it.  He eats it and finds that it tastes sweet as honey.  A short time later, however, he has a dreadful stomach-ache.  Christian people find the truth of God sweet to their palate; we rightly love the taste of the gospel and the truth by which the gospel exposes illusions and the integrity that the gospel lends us.  But Christians find too that as much as we savour the gospel, the gospel collides with the world and brings suffering upon us, as it did for our Lord before us.

Those journalists who kept telling the world that Stalin was a good fellow even as they witnessed his carnage; an American journalist with the New York Times who lied extremely well was awarded a Pulitzer prize for his deliberate falsehood.  There was one British journalist, however, who saw the truth, told the truth, and kept on telling the truth in defiance of his superiors: Malcolm Muggeridge.  And because of his dedication to the truth born of his own integrity, Muggeridge was fired.  Not only was he unemployed, he was unemployable.  Angry British officials saw to that.  And all he did was tell the truth?  The little scroll tastes sweet, as it should, since gospel-righteousness is sweet.  Yet as we eat it, which we must, it gives us stomach-ache.

V: —  Who, exactly who, is the occasion of the Christian’s stomach-ache?  The monster from the abyss, plus the great whore.  (I told you earlier in the sermon that John was never dainty.)  The monster from the abyss and the great whore collaborate, says John.  The great whore is affluence, the affluence that John saw in affluent Rome and the city’s empire.  Affluence seduces people away from single-minded devotion to Jesus Christ, says John.  It did then and it does now.  Concerning this whore John writes, “The merchants of the earth have grown rich with the wealth of her wantonness.”

Affluence fosters an addiction to greater affluence.  As a nation’s energies are given over to making its people affluent two things happen.  In the first place, ever-increasing affluence becomes the preoccupation of the people.  They will give up anything for greater affluence.  They become shallow, shrivelled in spirit, cruel, coarse and insensitive.  In the second place, a few of the nation’s people become astoundingly rich.  As colossal sums of money become concentrated in only a few hands, those few hands become tyrannical.  For this reason John tells us that the great whore (affluence) rides around on the back of the monster from the abyss (tyranny).  Doesn’t it make you nervous that 80% of the stock traded on the Toronto Stock Exchange is owned by only twenty families?

John insists, however, that we not point the finger.  No one has the right to say to a high-profile family, “You are extraordinarily corrupt.”  In an affluent society everyone is beguiled by mammon, says John, everyone is spiritually corrupted and impoverished.  We can resist this only as we turn our gaze from the seductions of the great whore and look upon Christ alone.

 

VI: —  “Is it all bleak?”, someone asks, “doesn’t John recognize a genuine human good in life somewhere?”  Yes he does.  In fact, John is as quick to acknowledge genuine human achievement as any humanist is.  When John speaks of the New Jerusalem (which is the kingdom of God or the creation of God healed) he tells us that the kings of the earth are going to bring their glory into it.  Not God’s glory (they have no jurisdiction over that), but their glory; the profoundest human accomplishments are going to have a glorious place in the New Jerusalem.  John knows that human cultural achievements are glorious indeed.  He knows that the very best of human creativity will be honoured in the kingdom of God .  Nothing of genuine worth in God’s sight will ever be lost.

John knows that however cruel tyrannical Rome might be, however shallow and decadent affluent Rome might be, there remains in it much that is humanly good.  And this good, of genuine worth in God’s sight, God will preserve.

Then what is the human glory that will find its place in the kingdom of God ?

— the philosophical wisdom of ancient Greece .

— the legal and administrative genius of ancient Rome .

— the architectural genius of mediaeval Europe .

— the painting of the Dutch masters.

— the dramas of the profoundest dramatists.

I often quote a line from Elie Wiesel, one of the premier writers of the past fifty years and a Nobel prizewinner.  Wiesel says, “A poet’s word is worth a thousand pictures.”  Then the poet’s word will be preserved as well.

What about music?  Myself, I am especially fond of the music of Mozart.  So was Karl Barth, the most prolific theologian of the twentieth century.  Barth was strictly an amateur when it came to music.  Yet he had his opinions, like the rest of us.  In his opinion Bach and Beethoven were excellent musicians. Bach, however, said Barth, tried too hard to make a point in his music.  Beethoven wrote about himself; his music was overtly autobiographical.  But Mozart; Mozart gave expression to sheer joy, sheer delight.  In a 1955 article Karl Barth wrote, “…our daily bread must also include playing.  I hear Mozart …at play. But play is something so lofty and demanding that it requires mastery.  And in Mozart I hear an art of playing as I hear it nowhere else….When I hear Mozart I am transported to the threshold of a world that in sunlight and storm, by day and by night, is a good and ordered world.”

Nothing of genuine human worth will ever be lost in the kingdom of God , the New Jerusalem.

 

VII: —  It’s time to return to our text.  “The Spirit and the Bride say ‘Come’.”  The Spirit is the Spirit of God, the power in which Jesus Christ speaks and acts.  The Bride is the city of God , the New Jerusalem, the kingdom of God , the entire creation healed.  The Spirit and the new creation that God established in the triumph of his Son over the myriad plagues of evil and sin; the Spirit and the new creation call to us, even as God himself renders it all believable and desirable.

The Spirit and the Bride say ‘Come’.  Let all who are thirsty take the water of life without price.  For from this city flows the water of life, and this life-giving water will

strengthen our fellowship,

magnify our redeemer,

arm us to resist the plagues of evil,

equip us to fend off the seductions of affluence,

and even move us to treasure that human accomplishment which God will preserve.

The Spirit and the Bride say ‘Come’.  Let all who are thirsty take the water of life without price.

 

There comes from the most violent book in the bible an invitation that couldn’t be warmer.

Victor Shepherd
March 2008          preached Sunday 9th March in St.Andrew’s United Church, Markham, Ontario