by Daniel Harrell
Unless you have a peculiar passion for apocalyptic dystopian scenarios—you’re a fan, let’s say, of the Hunger Games, I Am Legend, The Matrix (for us old-timers) or even Wall-E—then today’s scripture from Revelation with its marauding horse-like locusts with saber-toothed human faces is terribly disturbing, especially on a Reformation Sunday devoted to our Confirmation Class. In my defense, I have been working through Revelation chapter and verse since September. It’s God’s providence that brings us to these unsettling trumpets this morning.
If it’s any comfort, I checked my files for the last time I preached from Revelation 8 and 9. The last time, again, as providence would have it, was on a Mother’s Day. Plenty took issue then with my preaching from such fury-laden verses on a day devoted to maternal devotion; but then again, you never saw how mad my mother could get.
Especially this one time as a kid when my brother and I thought it’d be fun to have a Pepsi war in the kitchen. Each of us armed with our 2-liter bottles, shaken to the point of carbonated detonation, we took dead aim and launched our soda-pop projectiles, thoroughly soaking each other, the appliances and my mother’s new kitchen curtains in a brown syrupy slime. I won’t go so far as to say my mother spewed sulfur from her nostrils as do the war-horses here in chapter 9, but my brother and I were grounded for a couple of years. I tried to make up for it by becoming a minister. My Mom continues to bring up this transgression at family gatherings, so my sense is that she’s still fuming a bit.
Lots of happy Moms (and dads) in the house today, proud of our confirmands who would never do something so silly. We should remind ourselves that what we confirm today is your baptism. In Reformed Christian traditions, such as ours, where most often baptism douses babies still wrapped in swaddling clothes, confirmation marks a moment of ownership: the taking for yourself the faith your parents have held for you since your birth. However, to own your faith is not to possess it. If anything, Scripture is clear that our faith possesses us. Revelation describes Christians as purchased, bought by the very blood of Christ, washed clean and sealed tight as his servants. In chapter 7 they appear as a white-robed throng who’ve survived great tribulation and trouble, testimony to Jesus’ own words that to follow him can get you crucified. Loving your enemies, making peace, refusing to chase after money, telling the truth, confronting injustice, forgiving your debtors—these are not popular things to do. They can bring you trouble.
“I send you out as sheep among wolves” Jesus said. Right after his own baptism, his hair still dripping wet, Jesus got sent to the wolves, specifically to the wilderness to be attacked by Satan himself. That Jesus withstood the devil’s dares and went on to do the right thing confirmed his own baptismal identity as the Son of God. Confirmation does not prepare you for life in the church. Confirmation prepares you for life in the world as a follower of Jesus.
“In the world you will have tribulation and trouble,” Jesus promised. “But take courage,” he said, “I have conquered the world.” Oddly, Jesus’ victory gets represented in Revelation as a bloodied lamb having been butchered and beaten. But this has always been the irony of the gospel: Victory obtained through disgrace and defeat. For early Christians disgraced and doomed to defeat under Roman oppression, this irony was just what they needed. Their faithfulness looked like failure and foolishness; more like suicide than anything approaching success. The butchered Lamb vindicated the suffering their faithfulness brought and gave them courage and comfort too.
We professed our faith using the ancient Apostle’s Creed this morning, but in times of trouble and suffering, I’ve always liked the Reformation’s 450-year-old Heidelberg Catechism: It’s first question asks: “What is my only comfort in life and in death?” And then answers, “That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.”
We need this comfort. This courage. The trouble we suffer still in the world is not unlike the kind Revelation paints: a burning earth, contaminated waters, darkened skies, advancing evil, death and disease—end of the world scenarios that read like the daily news. If the science is right, 2014 is already on track to be the hottest in history. This past summer, California fried while Alaska melted and New England got drenched. The most recent National Climate Assessment declares the dismal forecasted future of global warming as already happening. Like it or not, believe it or not, data from the atmosphere and the oceans, satellites and weather balloons, thermometers and buoys, plant and species migration and short-circuiting ecosystems all corroborate as evidence. The West Antarctic ice sheet has started splitting apart from below, meaning that warming and rising ocean waters are irreversible. Physics will not let us off the hook. From now on, our efforts must be devoted to keeping things from getting worse than they otherwise will be. The earth will survive climate change. It’s human existence that’s doomed.
In a sense, Revelation simply states the obvious. So far six opened seals unleashed a torrent of familiar misery: War, strife, economic scarcity and death galloped forth as the storied four horsemen of the Apocalypse (just in time for Halloween). The seventh seal (seven being a very important number in Revelation) lets loose another septet, seven angels with trumpets that blow more like cannons than horns. Climatic chaos ensues—a third of the earth, a third of the trees and all the grass gets torched.
“One third” gets mentioned twelve times in these verses, a descending ramp from bad to worse. The four horsemen had been granted power over only a fourth of the earth to do their dirty work. Here flaming hail gives way to a flaming mountain and then to a flaming star falling from the sky. The hail takes out a third of the ground, the volcano a third of the sea, the meteor a third of the fresh water. John names the falling star Wormwood, meaning bitterness. A third of the earth’s water supply becomes undrinkable. Currently on our planet 92 percent of all fresh water is diverted to agriculture. Did you know takes it takes around 3,000 liters of water to produce a hamburger (counting what a cow drinks to become beef)? Around 42 trillion liters of water goes to provide for the 14 billion burgers consumed just in the United States last year. This may explain the 1.8 billion people overweight or obese in the world. And somehow one billion go hungry everyday.
A fourth trumpet blast wipes out a third of the sky reducing the capacity for survival and hemming humanity into a corner. An eagle circles overhead, though the word for this bird is translated elsewhere as vulture. It screeches, “Woe, woe, woe to the inhabitants of earth.” The outlook is grim, with three more trumpets yet to blow.
“What is my only comfort in life and in death?” “That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.”
How do you trust this is true? One young writer described it as something like learning to swim. In the deep water, you have to be calm and attentive when you’re feeling most scared. Sometimes you have to be tricked. The adults who teach us will say, “Swim to me, I’m right here,” but then they’ll back up. You learn with your body what is possible, despite what your mind tells you. You learn you have to trust things outside of yourself: your parents, the floor, chairs, bicycles, water, science, God. You are not your own. You belong to something greater than yourself.
“Do not be afraid;” Jesus assures at Revelation’s start. “I am the first and the last, and the living one. I was dead, but see, I am alive forever; and I hold the keys of Death and of Hades.” A fifth trumpet blows, another star plummets. In Jewish apocalyptic tradition, falling stars were fallen angels, only here Jesus gives this one his keys. The implication seems to be that nothing can unleash hell on earth unless granted permission. This is a perpetual problem when it comes to God’s providence, the ever-present “problem of evil.” We twist our theology into tangled knots so as to absolve the Lord of any liability for evil and suffering in the world, but Revelation keeps the connection as consolation. No matter how bad it gets, God sits on his throne and the Lamb remains slain for the sins of the world. The Sovereign Lord sets limits on evil and redeems for his purposes the most horrific fallout of human transgression, even to the extreme of his own suffering and unjust death at human hands on a cross.
Some theologians theorize Jesus’ unjust death was a ransom paid to Satan to release sinners from their captivity. Jesus resisted temptation where we do not, making him the righteous payoff for our disobedience. We are set free, but so is further evil and sin. Keys in hand, Satan unlocks the Abyss and from the furnace below plumes forth sulfurous gas, followed by a crippling cloud of locusts with a scorpion’s sting, devastating demons from the depth of evil, a terrorizing army displacing whole populations and fatal plagues at the sixth trumpet’s sound. Satan’s doom may be sure, but in the meantime he subcontracts as an ironic agent of justice against the very sin he inspires. Like evil itself, this makes no sense.
Everybody wants to study Revelation until they actually read it. These verses haunt like some dreadful nightmare, the sort that extracts blood-curdling screams at four-in-the-morning and sends your heart through your throat. Because Revelation runs in cycles, its nightmare recurs. Back at the sixth seal, “the sun turned black, the moon turned red, the stars fell to earth, and the sky rolled back like a scroll.” Here the fourth trumpet blows and they do it all over again. Woe, woe and more woe. The ancients understood recurring nightmares as portents of personal doom. Psychologists teach recurring nightmares to be signals of inner anxiety; cries for help we need to make changes. And yet we resist. We deny the climate change that needs to happen inside.
John rolls out the corroborating data, evidence of evil straight from the Ten Commandments: idolatry, murder, adultery, stealing. To the list John also adds sorcery (a Greek word from whence we get the word pharmacy—drug abuse in the Bible?). He also adds demon worship. It’s as if the only way to survive the demonic onslaught is to worship our devils. Human sin remains remarkably unimaginative. It’s cyclical too—history repeating itself over and over. We lie to cover a lie to hide a lie. We drink to alleviate the stress caused by being drunk. We eat another bag of cookies to ease the sadness of being overweight. More downloaded porn to lessen the shame of obsessing over pornography. Another credit card to take care of our indebtedness. We keep the gossip going because we love to hear it. We hurt and ruin to assuage our envy. Another grudge to justify our refusal to forgive.
The only good thing about a recurring nightmare is finally waking up from it. But then the problem is that we dismiss it as only a dream. Despite blaring trumpets and turmoil, disasters and demons, the surviving two-thirds of humanity here in Revelation “did not repent of the work of their hands,” they deny they need any climate change, they refuse to quit their harmful and hurtful ways and turn to God. We’re fine just like we are.
By contrast, the willingness to repent, to change and be changed, to be truly loved by God in the hard ways God will love you, this is a mark of genuine faith. The lethal cloud that swarms out from the Abyss is not allowed to harm those with God’s proof of purchase seals on their foreheads. These sealed by God—the figurative 144,000 we studied a few Sundays ago—hearken back to the repentant people of God in Ezekiel, marked with ashes on their foreheads as signs of remorse for all the ruin they’d caused.
Science shows earth’s measurable warming has been caused primarily by human-induced emissions of heat-trapping gases. The ravages of war and the repeating patterns of oppression and violence throughout history are our fault too. As is every relational break and breach of faith and lie and murder and theft. Viruses may not be our fault, but their proliferation is due in part to the woefully deficient health care endemic to impoverished countries whose poverty has its own roots in social strife and injustice. As one observer writes, earth is home to millions of species, but only one dominates. Human cleverness, inventiveness and activities have modified almost every part of our planet and are the drivers of every global problem we face.
“What is my only comfort in life and in death?” “That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.” Repentance is the mark of genuine faith, and repentance brings responsibility. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord” will enter the kingdom of heaven,” Jesus said, “but only those who do the will of my Father.” We have responsibility to care for the earth over which we’ve been given dominion, responsibility to attend to the poor and oppressed and to the widow and orphan, responsibility to be generous, responsibility to forgive those who hurt us and not hurt others, responsibility to pray and make peace, and to refuse to tell lies, responsibility to love our neighbors and our children and spouses and brothers and sisters in Christ and to worship the Lord with all our heart. And when we fail at these things, we have responsibility to repent and bear witness to the climate change in our souls, the resurrection of Jesus who makes all things new. The repentant and responsible lives we live are confirmations of our baptism—of the water that has marked us as belonging to our faithful Savior Jesus Christ forever.