by Daniel Harrell
Good news about braving the cold to be in church this morning. An interesting and growing body of medical research demonstrates faith and religious practice is good for your health. Research shows people with strong faith release control of their struggles and worries to God, which helps relieve anxiety and stress. Churches offer a strong source of community and friendships, critical for long term health and happiness. Moreover, religious faith gives meaning to life, and conversely, eases the fear of death. Even better, Christianity promises that eternity need not be spent in the company of people you hate. Even better than that, according to Revelation, the purveyors of evil, the harlot and her henchmen, will be dumped into a lake of burning fire, their followers mowed down by a sword and their flesh devoured by vultures while the righteous sing Hallelujah!
More good news: I’m going to set Revelation aside for Lent, which starts this Ash Wednesday. Lent has enough gloom without having to get apocalyptic. I thought we’d move over to Matthew’s gospel for a while—Hallelujah. Though I should warn you: Matthew has Jesus, borrowing from the prophet Daniel, describe himself as a son of man riding on clouds in the sky. Jesus says, “All the peoples of the earth will mourn when they see the Son of Man coming with power and great glory.” Why might they mourn? Revelation 19. Jesus does not come gliding on fluffy white clouds, but galloping on a stormy white stallion. “Do not think I have come to bring peace,” he said in Matthew’s gospel. “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.”
Jesus wields his sword in a most dangerous fashion here—it protrudes out of his mouth. Do not try this at home. Granted, like most everything in Revelation, Jesus’ sword is not a literal blade forged of metal and between his teeth as a weapon of death. It is sharp, to be sure, but it protrudes from the mouth of one named “Word of God.” As we read in the book of Hebrews, “The word of God is living and active, sharper than any double-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it judges the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”
The gospel has always taken aim for the heart. Christianity declares you loved before you could ever deserve it—which as a sinner you never can. Not even when doing your best. Good deeds are always tinged with self-interest. Motives are constantly questioned no matter how morally successful you are. The apostle Paul, an award-winning Pharisee, had checked all the boxes and done everything right. Yet in the blaring light of the gospel he realized that “whatever I gained, I now regard as a load of (literal) crap.” The gospel condemned in Paul not his failures but his religious goodness. “Now I count it all garbage,” he confessed, “compared to the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord for whose sake I have suffered the loss of all things so that one way or another, I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”
This morning’s passage might be a little metaphorically misleading on this point. We read of a “bride making herself ready” whom we know to be the church. She is to “be clothed in fine fine linen, bright and pure” which we are told (parenthetically) stands for the “righteous deeds of the saints.” However our English translation stretches two words “righteous deeds” out of the single noun “righteousness.” Obviously some translator wasn’t completely comfortable with grace—grace which has never been a reward for getting your act together. If anything, grace depends on your never having your act together. Any righteousness we enjoy comes to us as a gift from God. Our wedding gown is an extravagance we never could have afforded to buy.
Jesus storms down the aisle on his horse, sword in mouth wearing his own robe “dipped in blood.” Most presume the blood to be the blood of his enemies, but inasmuch as the Jesus who rides is the very same Lamb of God slain for the sins of the world, you may conclude the blood on his robe is his own. Righteousness comes at great cost. Riding in tow are the armies of heaven on their own white horses, all clad in clean linen. Some say these are angels, riding to wage war alongside Jesus. But others insist this is the bridal party instead—the saints identified back in chapter 7 as having endured “great tribulation; whose robes are washed white and clean in the blood of the Lamb.”
One such saint might be Kayla Mueller, kidnapped and killed as a prisoner of the Islamic State in Syria. Kayla was a student who’d volunteered nights at an Arizona women’s shelter, protested genocide in Darfur and started a chapter of Amnesty International. She volunteered at a summer camp for young African refugees in Israel, supported disenfranchised Palestinians, did mission work Guatemala, and taught English to Tibetan refugees in India. Kayla was 26-years-old. Her Christian faith took her to Syria to assist refugees there, and her faith sustained her during her months of unimaginable captivity. In a letter to family delivered by her captors to prove that she’d died, Kayla wrote, “By God + by your prayers I have felt tenderly cradled in free-fall. I have been shown in darkness, light + have learned that even in prison, one can be free. I am grateful I have come to see that there is good in every situation, sometimes we just have to look for it.”
Jesus told his disciples in Matthew’s gospel,“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life? For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and he will reward.”
It takes a lot of faith for heavenly rewards to warrant hardship on earth. Banking on a happy marriage to Jesus isn’t always enough. Have you had a good look at the groom? Forgetting his seven horns and seven eyes for a second, the most startling aspect of the Lamb of God in Revelation was how he showed up all beaten and bloodied. Like the prophet Isaiah predicted, and we read every Lent: “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom people hide their faces, he was despised and we esteemed him not.” It’s hard to be happy about marrying that. Perhaps this is why, like the ugly duckling who morphs into a beautiful swan, Revelation has the bloody little lamb transfigured to gallop down the aisle bedecked and bedazzling astride that gallant white stallion. His eyes blaze like fire and his head is crowned with royalty. The despised and rejected Lamb, weak and mortally wounded, returns triumphant and more valiant than any Prince Charming. From ashes to glory, he is King of kings and Lord of lords. Hallelujah!
By Easter we’ll be singing Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus, which gets all of its lyrics from Revelation. The resounding hallelujahs sung here in chapter 19 respond to the heavenly chorus of chapter 11: “The kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign forever.” Handel has the choir reverberating back and forth to represent this back and forth between heaven and earth. Together they culminate in chapter 19, verse 6: “for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth.” We never tire of hearing it because we never stop needing it. This kingdom-coming together of heaven and earth is a double-edged sword. On one edge is grace for God’s servants, “for all who fear him, both small and great,” but on the other is destruction “for those who corrupted the earth… the sharp sword will strike down the nations… he will tread the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty.” Both grace and justice are good news for the righteous.
In Chapel Hill, North Carolina, this week, three graduate students, two of whom had planned to go to Turkey to give dental care to Syrian refugees, were gunned down by their neighbor, each shot in the head, police and family say, due to a dispute over parking. Dig deeper, however, and it seems that the murders had to do with religion too. The students were observant Muslims, two of them women dressed in head scarves. The murderer filled his Facebook page with contempt against all religion, Christians too. People saw it coming only in hindsight. The killer bragged about his guns and ammunition and is said to have been obsessed with white man vigilante movies. But seriously. A parking dispute? It was being reported like this is supposed to make sense.
This same week, in Chapel Hill, the longtime UNC basketball coach Dean Smith died. As a Carolina grad enrolled during Dean Smith’s prime, I cried all week. While a student, Smith brought the basketball team by our dorm so we could meet the freshmen. One had looked pretty good in practice. Michael somebody.
A devout Christian, Smith was an active member of church whose religious convictions anchored his deep love for others, his passionate commitments to social justice, and his oft-admired integrity and humility. He spoke eloquently of his faith but didn’t wear it on his sleeve, nor did he assume everyone had to believe exactly like him. During the 60s he was among the first to recruit a black student to play at a major Southern university. He single-handedly integrated a segregated restaurant by taking his team there to eat. He was deeply devoted to his players, working for their best throughout their whole lives. Gophers senior associate athletic director Mike Ellis, a student manager at Carolina, recounted the way Smith came to the hospital when Ellis’ dad got in a car wreck, helped him get a coaching job at Virginia Commonwealth, sent notes in the mail after every win, and remembered his wife’s name ten years after meeting her once. Ellis was one of over a hundred student managers for whom Smith did the same thing. Smith retired as the winningest basketball coach in history, though he’d tried to retire before he won it so to show how such honors are never the point. Pushed to at least finish the season by his supporters, he retired on the eve of the next season’s first practice so that the university would have to pick his assistant coach of 30 years as his successor. Hall of Fame, Olympic Gold Medalist, Two-Time National Champion, Presidential Medal of Freedom, husband and father, I could go on.
The university will celebrate Smith next Sunday with a huge memorial service, which he would have hated, at the arena named for him, which he had to be pressured to allow. He’d say, “You should never be proud of doing what’s right. You should just do what’s right.” Some argue that it’s easy to be humble when you’re so accomplished and famous. But I say it’s harder because accomplishments and fame are the great temptations to pride—just ask NBC’s Brian Williams, if you can find where he’s hiding.
“Nothing is hidden that will not be revealed, nothing secret that will not be made known,” be it good or bad, Jesus said, also in Matthew’s gospel. “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” A double edged-sword “to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” “He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears;” Isaiah prophesied, “but with truth he will judge the needy, with equity he will give decisions for the poor of the earth. He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth; with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.”
In grim comparison to the wedding feast of the Lamb, the great supper of God does also have human flesh on its menu. But rather than the righteous body of Christ, the grim supper serves up the carrion of evil: the flesh of the wicked who chose to obey the beast. Jesus died on a cross to forgive every sinner, but there are some sinners who have no interest in forgiveness—be they faith-hating murderers or terrorists who exploit faith to justify their terror. Yale theologian Miroslav Volf reminds that, “Underlying the theology of judgment is the assumption that nothing is strong enough to change those who insist on remaining beasts and false prophets. We must not shrink back from the unpleasant and deeply tragic possibility that there are those human beings created in God’s image who through their immersion in evil have immunized themselves from God’s grace.”
As hard as this can be to swallow at times, at least Jesus does all the judging. As for us, Jesus says, “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Our own sense of justice is always tinged with self-interest. Motives are constantly questioned no matter how morally successful you are. More often than not, we pervert righteousness and justice even as we seek to do it. Again, as theologian Miroslav Volf reminds, “the fiercer the struggle against the injustice you suffer, the blinder you will be to the injustice you inflict. We tend to translate the presumed wrongness of our enemies into an unfaltering conviction of our own rightness.”
Instead, we hear Jesus say in Matthew, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely do all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven.” Hallelujah. Let us rejoice and exult and give God the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready.” Young Kayla Mueller wrote to her family. “The thought of your pain is the source of my own, simultaneously the hope of our reunion is the source of my strength. Please be patient, give your pain to the Lord. I know you would want me to remain strong. That is exactly what I am doing. Do not fear for me, continue to pray as will I + by God’s willwe will be together soon.”