by Daniel Harrell
Our last years in Boston were spent living in Southie, a neighborhood best known, notoriously, as the haunt of Whitey Bulger’s Irish mob, and the inspiration and setting for such movies as Goodwill Hunting, The Departed, Gone Baby Gone, Mystic River and other dark depictions of raw humanity. Southie could be rough (though as a staunch Catholic community, nobody’d ever steal a computer from church there). Next to our A-framed attached house squeezed an alley where I parked my big Home Depot top-loader plastic trash can on wheels. I’d marked my address in big black letters so that the others who shared the alley could distinguish their proper garbage receptacle from mine. The problem was that a neighbor ignored the designation and brashly dumped his trash in my can every week so that when I went to dispose of my own garbage, my can was already full. And then when trash day came, my neighbor took for granted that I was going to haul his garbage out to the street since it was in my can, leaving him an empty bin for his next week’s refuse—which effectively made my neighbor my enemy, whom Jesus commanded I must love.
Being a Christian, I tried to do that—taking out my enemy’s garbage and bearing the imposition with grace. Nevertheless, when I shared this story as an illustration of what I good Christian I was, I was barraged by a slew of congregational advice against it. Several other good Christian people suggested instead I dump the pig’s garbage on his doorstep and force him to take some responsibility for his rudeness. Others argued that I speak the truth in love and confront my neighbor—which clearly showed their unfamiliarity with Southie. Not only am I one of those men who doesn’t relish confrontation with someone who may be bigger and stronger, and in Southie, the outcome was more likely to be my being told to go and do anatomically impossible things to myself.
Another member of my congregation furtively sidled up and whispered that he was a former Irish mob gangster turned Christian who still had a number of, shall we say, associates in South Boston. He’d been trying to convert these thugs to Jesus with little success. Having described my garbage plight to his associates, as an illustration of my suffering for Jesus, they replied by asking for my neighbor’s address. They said they’d take care of it, if you know what I mean. I confess I didn’t object as quickly as I should have, being the good Christian that I am. Thankfully my virtuous friend had already told his boys no, this was not the way I wanted to handle things. Vengeance is not what the New Testament teaches…
… until you get to Revelation. If it’s retribution you do want, Revelation is your book.
Back on Reformation Sunday, we read of fierce trumpet-laden trouble rained down on earth: a burning planet, contaminated waters, darkened skies, advancing evil, disease and disaster—end of the world scenarios that read like the names from last week’s news: climate change, Ebola, Isis and Obama (or a fully Republican Congress, depending on your political perspective). In a sense, Revelation simply states the obvious. Six opened seals had unleashed a torrent of war, strife, economic scarcity and death. A seventh seal lets loose only another septet, seven angels with trumpets that blow more like cannons than horns. Climatic chaos ensues—a third of the earth fries and hems humanity into a corner. A vulture circles overhead. The prognosis is not good.
These verses read are a dreadful nightmare, extracting blood-curdling screams and sending your heart through your throat. The ancients understood nightmares as portents of personal doom. Psychologists teach nightmares to be signals of inner turmoil; cries for help and the need for change. Revelation laid out a litany of reasons: idolatry, adultery, murder and stealing, drug abuse and demon worship—as if the only way to survive a demonic onslaught is to bow to our devils. The good thing about a nightmare is finally waking up from it. But then the problem is that we dismiss it as only a dream. Despite blaring trumpets and dire warnings, the survivors in Revelation “did not repent of the work of their hands.” Nothing changed.
The focal component of repentance is normally sorrow or contrition, but repentance is more than feeling bad about our behavior. Repentance means to turn, to rotate your entire existence in a new direction. The first words out of Jesus’ mouth in the gospels had been “repent for the kingdom of God is near.” If the kingdom is near, we’re talking a new normal. You have to regard the world and your place in it differently. To repent is to have your eyes opened, your heart transformed, your spirit moved, your priorities and behaviors shifted to reflect the priorities and behavior of a little lamb butchered for the sins of the world; a criminal hung on a cross who is somehow Christ the Lord. This is the mark of true faith.
A lethal locust cloud swarmed up from the Abyss unlocked by the devil himself in chapter 9. But no harm came to those marked by true faith on their foreheads. These sealed by God—the figurative 144,000 we studied in chapter 7 and who will appear again in chapter 14—these hearken back to the repentant people of God in Ezekiel; people marked with ashes on their foreheads as signs of remorse for all the ruin they’d caused. Repentance repositions you for resurrection. This is why these people are here.
But getting here was a hard road despite their repentance. Again, we turn and follow a man with a cross. Persecuted for their faith by Roman oppressors, their fruit of their faith was the cruelty they endured. What was their only hope? We asked and answered this question on Reformation Sunday using the 450-year-old Heidelberg Catechism. Remember? “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.”
Belonging to Jesus brings both salvation from sin and vindication for the injustices we suffer. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” Jesus promised, both the righteousness of character and the righteousness of justice. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they will be satisfied.” “Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. But when? In Revelation 6, you’ll recall, Christians martyred for their faith are found huddled in heaven, no less, complaining how God twiddles his thumbs when it comes to evil. They called out in a loud voice of despair, “How long, O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?”
Seriously. We look and around and we see those with no faith doing just fine in this world. Apathetic and even antagonistic toward God, liars and cheaters and gossips succeed with impunity; they dump their trash in our cans without consequence. War and more war, bloodshed and horror fuel more bloodshed and horror. Economic disparity and indifference draw dark lines between haves and can’t haves. The atmosphere dangerously clogs, oceans rise, weather fronts stall, droughts and vortexes ensue. Families and relationships break apart and prayers go unanswered. Seriously Lord, what’s taking so long?
St. Peter explained that the slowness of God reflects his long-suffering for the sake of repentance. The tardiness of God is not an abdication of justice, but a determination to save. In this same spirit, the martyrs were all given white robes and told to wait “until the number of their fellow servants should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been killed.” More bad news before any good news happens. “Whoever wants to save their life will lose it,” Jesus said, “but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.”
For most modern people, losing your life to save it sounds ridiculous. In our world, you do whatever it takes to live as long as you can. Ours is a secular age where science, technology and economic self-interest are the final arbiters of ultimate reality. Christian faith fails the test of modern thought. How can anybody live a life framed by belief in a deity whose existence you’ll never be able to prove? In an archaic rabbi who was supposedly God in the flesh? Christians are fools. St. Paul said it first: “God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.” Science-minded believers do get embarrassed by the silliness of virgin births and resurrection and returning to judge the quick and the dead—but as countless people have discovered, there’s a lot of goodness to be had in all that foolishness.
I’ve never known a person to lose their life for the gospel in America. It’s difficult to do. But I did know of a woman who lost a kidney. Convinced of Christ’s command to love her neighbor as herself, even if that neighbor is a stranger, she avowed to do unto others as she would want others to do unto her. Since, like everybody else, she could get by just fine with one kidney, she offered her other one for free through an ad online and at a local dialysis center. Over 80,000 people wait on donor lists for kidneys. Among critics appalled by her generosity was a doctor and medical ethicist who labeled her flagrant kindness as abject kookiness. Christians are fools. Granted, Jesus never said to give a kidney to a stranger. But this one Christian woman, named Susan, went on to donate hers to a dying man she’d never met in Texas and saved his life.
Revelation 10 functions sort of like chapter 8—a calm before the snowstorm, a chance to catch our breath before the thermometer plummets and drifts rise to bury us in a frigid tundra for the next six months. In chapter 8 after the seventh seal was broken, there was silence in heaven for half an hour. Here, there’s a pause preceding the seventh trumpet. It’s one last opportunity to reassess. Up to now the Lord has been patient, but soon the waiting is over. In the fullness of time, time itself comes to an end, both personally and cosmically. In Revelation all restraint will be removed and the Antichrist revealed. The forces of God and Satan will meet in final confrontation. The end will be set irrevocably in motion and the mystery of God completed; not mystery as some deep dark secret, but mystery as those purposes of God too profound for human ingenuity. Full disclosure of foolishness as wisdom arrives in chapter 11 when the seventh trumpet blows and loud voices in heaven ring out, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign forever and ever.” Justice and coronation occur through crucifixion and resurrection.
Another mighty angel descends from heaven, divine in stature and purpose. He is likely the same angel John saw in chapter 5; the one who called out for one worthy enough to break open the sealed scroll God held in his hand— a scroll ultimately unsealed by the crucified lamb. Once opened, it unleashed the now-familiar barrage of disaster and woe, which led to the sounding of six trumpets and more woe once the seventh seal was broken. As you should notice by now, Revelation repeats itself in sevens, recycling itself toward its final and glorious good. Some think the little scroll here is the same scroll as before, only now shrunk down to bite-size Halloween candy. As again with the prophet Ezekiel (Old Testament revelation fills the pages of Revelation), the visionary John is told to eat the scroll, to fully devour its message so to rightly communicate it to “many peoples, nations, languages and kings.”
Yet before John eats, the angel has other information. He roars like a lion and seven thunders sound, reverberations, perhaps, of his mighty voice. John prepares to write everything down, but the angel tells him to put down his pencil. Time is up. The angel swears an oath and declares: “There will be no more delay.” The gospel that comforts the oppressed with God’s promise of justice has cautioned the oppressor with that same promise of justice. Revelation pulls no punches in painting its portrait of doom so that the enemies of God might recognize that’s its in their eternal best interest to make peace—a peace God gave his own life as the crucified lamb to make. Every Sunday we pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done” whether we mean it or not. With the seventh trumpet, these prayers are answered.
Maybe this is why the bite-sized scroll will “be bitter to the stomach but sweet as honey in the mouth.” Grace that saves is grace that suffers, and grace that suffers gets ferociously avenged by God.“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice, for you will be satisfied.” “Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. “Better to tie a great millstone around your neck and be drowned in the depth of the sea.”
And yet as satisfying as it can be to anticipate the drowning of our enemies, a surprising twinge of pity surfaces. Aware of the ferocity of God’s dreadful justice, the Christian would rather his persecutor repent. God’s ferocious justice creates the dissonance it does because deep down we want, like the Lord, for his mercy to endure forever, for judgment to work like love—if for no other reason than we know how badly we need mercy for ourselves. Here again is the foolishness.
Back in Boston, yet another member of the church suggested I pray for my trash-dumping-neighbor—pray that God would smite him and give me the satisfaction. When I responded I didn’t think I should do that, she told me not to worry, the pig was on her prayer chain now. And sure enough, her prayers got answered. Not a week later a clogged gutter on my neighbor’s roof that had forced water to seep in behind his siding rotted the frame woodwork on his house to the tune of $5000.00. Praise the Lord. He had to rip open his house to get at the damage. Unfortunately, my righteousness quickly dissipated once it was revealed that the same clogged gutter was a gutter we shared. My siding had to come off too. The irony was brutal. We hunger and thirst for justice but are never as satisfied as we think we will be when justice comes. What tastes sweet like honey in our mouth turns our stomachs sour.
In the fullness of time, salvation meant moving to Minneapolis where I have another house with an alley but with much nicer neighbors so far. There’s still enough garbage in my life to fill up a large bin, but I no longer worry about my receptacle. My big plastic trash can is not my own, but belongs, body and soul, paper and plastic, recyclable and not, in life and in death, to my faithful receiver, the City of Minneapolis Public Works department. Like Jesus my faithful Savior, they take away my trash.