Signs of the Apocalypse

Signs of the Apocalypse

two_witnesses_-_book_of_revelationRevelation 11:1-14

by Daniel Harrell

Just in time for the meat of college and pro football seasons, a new book is out entitled Touchdowns for Jesus and Other Signs of the Apocalypse by Marcia Mount Shoop. Readers of Sports Illustrated will recognize the “signs of the apocalypse” part of the title as a take-off on a weekly graphic that reports sports-related realties so defiant of logic that no other explanation aside from the end of the world makes any sense. Recent examples have a stunt woman in Sydney, Australia, breaking a Guinness World Record by riding a motorized toilet at a speed of 46 mph. Or police being called to a dialysis clinic in Georgetown, Ky. prior to a basketball game between Kentucky and Louisville to break up an altercation between two patients: a 68-year-old Wildcats fan and a 71-year-old Cardinals supporter.

In a review of her book (as reviewed by Joseph Price), Shoop realigns football with apocalyptic thought by using the theological concept of ‘the unveiling of truth’ (a revelation) to analyze the systemic dysfunction of professional and near-professional football programs at major universities. She pursues this theological track because, as she observes, football “captures our imagination and elicits our deepest emotional outpourings much more than any religion does.”

Like a prophet, Shoop decries the institutional distortions and abuses of big-time football, drawing on the data and personal experience to support her argument. In the NCAA, the disparity between the economic advantages and disadvantages of the privileged and the poor is outrageous. Although the NCAA’s revenue in a recent academic year approached $1 billion, most of the players in Division I football and basketball, and mostly black, who generate the bulk of the funds for mostly white administrators and supporters, live below the poverty line. Sadly (for me) Shoop focuses her critique on the University of North Carolina (my alma mater), where her husband had served as an assistant coach before he was fired—along with the entire coaching staff—following, ironically, an NCAA investigation.

Among accounts of academic cheating and fake classes is the case of one black player from an impoverished  family who fainted because he hadn’t eaten for days over a break between school terms. He’d been receiving his allotted per diem for food while the university’s cafeteria was closed, but had sent the money home to help his family pay the bills. Had he accepted a complimentary meal from someone while receiving his food allowance, he’d have lost his eligibility.  Clearly such a twisted culture begs a righteous response. Mine has been a meager though life-threatening protest. Bothered by the injustices and abuses—not to mention concussions and other violence within—I disconnected from DirecTV which required my perching precariously on my roof in order to cut down my dish.

I hadn’t watched a football game all season until I discovered you could buy an indoor HD antenna for 50 bucks just in time to watch Tom Brady beat the stuffing out of the Broncos and Peyton Manning. When it comes to football, I’m as big a hypocrite as any fan.

Revelation rolls out more genuinely righteous responses to human injustice and abuse: Already we’ve witnessed seven seals opened to unleash ferocious reprisals, only to have the seventh seal open to seven trumpets and blast even more. The Sovereign Lord allows all of it and directs some of it. A high priestly angel stood at heaven’s altar with incense to burn, representing the smoke-laden prayers of God’s people for justice. These prayers first rose before God as a fragrant appeal; but that fragrant fire soon shifted into a bonfire of divine vengeance. The fiery censer from which the incense wafted dropped like a bomb from the angel’s hand—nightmarish portents of yet more doom to come.

Anticipating the annihilation of evil, yet impatient with the patience of God in this regard, many fanatical Christians have worked to speed up the end. One group, believing the end to be contingent upon Israel rebuilding the Jerusalem Temple and re-instituting animal sacrifice, has already drawn up the blueprints, fashioned the priestly garments, sharpened the knives and gathered the wood. The only impediment remains a seventh century Islamic shrine, the Dome of the Rock, which occupies the Temple mount. According to this group, the shrine’s removal needs either the Antichrist’s persuasion of the Islamic world to tear down it down, or the UNs’ negotiation with Israel following a war with Russia, Lebanon and the Palestinians just before the rapture that will have elicited such an outpouring of Christian zeal amongst Jewish people that they will clamor to rebuild.

These bizarre notions derive, in part, from Revelation 11. The chapter commences with the command to “come and measure the Temple of God,” the assumption being that measuring means drawing up a set of plans for rebuilding. Plans were necessary because the original Temple, constructed by Solomon, was sacked by the Babylonians, and its replacement leveled later by the Romans. Inasmuch as the Temple is God’s house, how can Christ return without a place to stay? If you build it he will come.

Revelation 11 draws imagery from the prophet Ezekiel who similarly envisioned an angel using a measuring rod to draw up new Temple blueprints after the Babylonian destruction. These blueprints served as exiled Israel’s hope—the promise that God would again move into the neighborhood. Yet Ezekiel’s Temple never got built. By the end of Revelation, even as the new Jerusalem finally descends from the skies, no Temple building sits at its center either. The point is clear: The Lord never intended to live in a house made of stone, but rather one made of flesh and bone—“living stones” purchased for God from every tribe, language, people and nation—the cornerstone being Christ himself. The people of God are the house of the Lord. It’s not about the building.

Representing the people of God in Revelation 11 are two witnesses, envoys of God’s peace sent out to the world. The gospel that consoles the oppressed with the promise of justice cautions the oppressor with the same promise of justice. The world is represented by the outer court of the Temple “given over to the nations,” apocalyptic code for unbelievers. On the one hand this may suggest an evangelistic field ripe for harvest, yet because the nations trample the holy city for 42 months or 1260 days (a designated duration of suffering), it’s clearly a field rife with opposition too. Nevertheless, the two witnesses are sent out into it.

Bad enough that they the two witnesses are sent into a hostile world to preach the gospel, but the gospel itself engenders further hostility. People don’t want to hear it. To have someone extend grace presumes that you need it. Forgiveness presumes blame and human nature vigorously resists any blame. To have someone forgive you implies that you are not a good person. To have someone be cursed and crucified on a cross for you implies you are a really bad person. The gospel is offensive. Jesus said so himself. So much so that if preaching the gospel does not offend you’re probably not preaching the gospel. Not that Christians should be intentionally antagonistic. Grace is offensive enough without Christians having to be jerks about it—like I was as a budding preacher back in college. I’d arrogantly let loose on my pagan fraternity brothers to the extent that one night they tied me up and plunked me into a golf course sand trap just to get me to be quiet. I called it suffering shame for Jesus. My pastor called it being an idiot.

Given the offensiveness of grace, along with the hostility being labeled a sinner provokes, you’d think the Lord would send out more than two witnesses. Most agree that the two witnesses stand for the entire prophetic witness of the church. Like Jesus’ disciples sent out two by two, the necessity of two harkens back to the Torah which stipulates two witnesses as necessary to corroborate truth. “Every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses,” Jesus said, “ For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

Here in Revelation, the two witnesses are given the spirit and power of God to compel belief and do justice. Like other Old Testament prophets (namely Moses and Elijah who were witnesses to the true identity of Jesus if you recall the Transfiguration) these two witnesses are able to shut the sky, turn water to blood, call forth plagues and spew fire to crisp their enemies. But they never do it. You’d think that if anything could persuade somebody to believe it would be having the power to say “turn or burn” right now—and mean it. But rather than flaming intimidation, these witnesses speak with humiliation. They wear sackcloth, the Biblical sign of repentance. It makes you wonder who the real sinners are.

Many of you may remember Donald Miller’s popular book from a number of years back, Blue Like Jazz. In it, he recounts a time as a zealous college student during an annual campus drunk-fest when he and his fellow Christians decided to do some evangelism. Miller proposed they set up a confession booth so that the partying students could repent of the many sins they would clearly be committing. They could hang out a sign of the apocalypse that read: “The End is Near—Confess Your Sins Here” The suggestion was meant to be sarcastic. The gospel’s offensive enough without being jerks.

But one of Miller’s friends thought a confession booth was brilliant—with one catch. Instead of accepting confessions, what if we made confessions? What if we confessed that as followers of Jesus, we have not been very loving and we are sorry? What if we apologize for the Crusades and Columbus and colonization disguised as mission, for televangelists and politicians, for neglecting the poor and the lonely? What if we apologized for being shaming and judgmental, and for our divisive conflicts over theological minutiae and liturgy and worship styles and sexuality and women preachers and whether it took six days or four and half billion years to create the earth? What if we asked people to forgive us for our selfish misrepresentation of Jesus on this campus and in the world? That we have been unfaithful stewards of grace and that we are sorry.” Donald Miller manned the booth and confessed to over thirty people that night. He wrote, “All of the people who visited the booth were grateful and gracious. And I was being changed through the process. I went in with doubts and came out believing so strongly in Jesus I was ready to die and be with him.”

Good thing. In Revelation 11 the two witnesses finish their testimony only to have the infamous beast of the Abyss rise up to wage war. It’s Revelation’s first mention of the beast—the embodiment of demonic resistance. And though we’ve read how anyone who wants to harm the witnesses must feel the heat of fire breathed from their lips, the witnesses, like sheep led to the slaughter, never open their mouths. Therefore the beast kills them and leaves their bodies to rot in the streets of the great city—a humiliation akin to crucifixion on a cross. John calls the city Sodom and Egypt: Sodom to represent heinous debauchery and Egypt to represent forced slavery and injustice. Neither are Jerusalem, yet John writes this is where the Lord was crucified—the implication being that Jesus is crucified wherever sin and oppression occur. Delighted crowds merrily dance on the dead bodies, break out the bubbly and exchange presents—glad to finally be rid of the righteous Christians and their tormenting gospel.

The whole thing ends in humiliating defeat; gospel proof of victory. In a recognizable pattern, the spirit of God breathes life into the witnesses after three days and they stand on their feet, terrifying those who saw them killed. A voice thunders from heaven summoning them to “get up here” which may be construed as a rapture, I guess. But unlike the Left Behind kind where believers elevate to escape tribulation, here the Christians ascend having met hardship head on. As after Christ’s resurrection, an earthquake shakes the city and a tenth of it collapses. Survivors are shaken to the core by the resurrected life of the defeated church and give glory to God. And just in time. In the next verse the last trumpet sounds and “the kingdom of the world becomes the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign for ever.” The dying and rising church, witnesses to gospel power, usher in the end of the world.

Jesus came preaching the kingdom of God, but what appeared was the church—nearing extinction in the Middle East, scorned in secular Europe, a tiny minority in much of Asia, fractious and increasingly irrelevant in America. Then again, as popular author Philip Yancey observes, the same could be said about Jesus during his time on earth. Despite power to heal the sick, raise the dead, change the weather and presumably spew fire form his mouth, he only affected relatively few people during his three years on earth, and most of them abandoned him. Jesus did nothing for the needs of China or Australia or South America or even Europe. Clearly he left that for later. “Whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing,” he said, “and even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.”

Inasmuch as the least is the greatest in the kingdom of God, little things must mean a lot when it comes to being the church. “Wherever two or three are gathered there I am there in your midst.” Jesus only prayed one prayer for his followers: “May they be one, as you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us by the Spirit.” Why? “So that the world may believe … and know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17:21-23).

What if we could be an answer to Jesus’ prayer? I’ve joked how we’re on the cusp of celebrating the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation, 500 years of church splits. What if we tried coming together instead? As we explore a possible  partnership in the gospel with the Upper Room church, which you can hear more about after the service, we can’t find two congregations anywhere who’ve done this except out of desperation. Imagine the witness we’d be to the world if we showed Christians working together for purposes greater than our own detached congregations?

A simple word search in the New Testament paints a picture of what the church should look like. Type “one another” into your Bible search box and you get from either Jesus or the epistles:

Love one another, be at peace with one another, live in harmony with one another, do not judge one another, welcome one another, wait for one another, care for one another, agree with one another, serve one another, bear with one another, be kind to one another, forgive one another, encourage one another toward love and good deeds, do good to one another, comfort one another, be devoted to one another.

Jesus came preaching the kingdom of God, but what appeared was the church—the visible presence of the invisible Christ. Whenever the church loves and acts like Jesus, we are a true sign of the apocalypse.