by Daniel Harrell
As a kid in my North Carolina suburban neighborhood, all my friends and I had a basketball goal in our driveway. To mark of our burgeoning identity and pride, we’d each adorn our backboards with our logos and colors of our favorite university. The Southern Baptist kid painted a Wake Forest Demon Deacon on his backboard. Another displayed a Clemson tiger paw. One kid decked his backboard out in North Carolina State Wolfpack Red, still another with an ugly Duke blue. Ruth, the girl who was taller and played better than the rest of us, painted a big Tar Heel foot on hers, God bless her.
Many years away from my own matriculation at UNC, I decided to make a different kind of statement, for reasons only my psychologist can explain. Out of nowhere, deep in the heart of Tobacco Road Basketball, I festooned my backboard in bright yellow and green, a big logo in the middle promoting the The Oregon Ducks. Not that I’d ever stepped foot in Oregon. I wasn’t exactly sure where it was. I can’t remember what inspired me to choose this school mascot, as opposed to one as equally random, say, a Minnesota Golden Gopher. What I do remember is writing Oregon’s Athletic Department with a narration of my intentions. They promptly sent me a gift box full of fan paraphernalia, this being decades before their current current Duck Dynasty. I proudly dressed like a Duck for school; causing classmates to take a wider berth than usual. And though I have yet to do more than drive through a corner of the state, I will once again quack for the Ducks tomorrow night as they vie with for the BCS Championship against Ohio State.
Oregon is the favorite, fresh off their thrashing of last year’s champion Florida State Seminoles 59-20 in the Rose Bowl, “its blur of an offense the most oppressive force in college football.” The totality of Oregon’s victory over FSU did possess a certain apocalyptic feel. Not to compare the Rose Bowl romp to Judgment Day, but you have to admit such complete humiliation of a foe followed by the thrilling exhilaration shown by delighted fans did exude a Revelation ring. Here in chapter 15 we read of total humiliation for the nefarious beast of 666 fame, followed by an exhilarated throng, harps in hand, who lift their collective voice in celebratory song. Some might say that stereotypic saints with harps on cloud-nine hardly stacks up with college students hooting and squawking and rocking with glee. But once you note the instruments described “harps of God” are actually more of like guitars, you can envision Revelation’s celebration as a jubilant jam session no earthly after-game party could ever match.
Still, as with Oregon, the Lord’s eventual and total victory comes with a bit of uneasiness. Two Ducks contributors failed NCAA drug tests administered at the Rose Bowl and will be suspended for the title game. The wrath of God rages steroid-free, but it does so with such ghastly vengeance, some wonder what happened to God’s grace and forgiveness. I argued last Sunday that the love is still there—fire and brimstone gets all of its energy from love that’s been scorned. “Jealousy arouses a husband’s fury,” say the Proverbs, “and he shows no restraint when he takes revenge.” The Bible portrays God as a husband to his people, and thus his reaction to rejection is not unfamiliar. But it does leave us uneasy, and even offended. Being a God whose mercy endures forever, shouldn’t the Lord behave better?
It is important to remember that human passion barely approximates divine wrath. Unlike human anger, the Scriptures never depict God’s wrath as unaccountable or capricious, but intentional and judicious. Any outburst has been stoked by the God’s passion for righteousness or provoked by his pity for the abused and mistreated. And though ferocious and fearful, God’s anger does remains temporary. As the Psalmist sings, “His anger lasts for a moment but his favor endures for a lifetime.” It is a means to an end rather than the end itself, the ultimate purpose being repentance and redemption.
In chapter 14 which we looked at last Sunday, an angel flew overhead and preached an “eternal gospel,” the only time the word gospel appears in Revelation. Good news for the oppressed—including Revelation’s original hearers suffering intense Roman persecution—this gospel was bad news for oppressors. The doom that played out wasn’t unlike the horrors that happened in Paris this week: violent perpetrators of evil get terminated by violence. In the harsh wake of the gospel angel rides a “son of man” on clouds, crowned with gold and wielding a sharp sickle with which to harvest the earth of its rotten grapes, pressed out “in the great wine press of the wrath of God,” a detestable vintage worth nothing except to be poured out in a horse-high river of gore stretching from here to Bemidji.
Bad enough to encounter so much violence in the news, do we have to read it in the Bible too? This morning’s passage rips wide with portents of more: seven more angels with seven more plagues, seven more bowls full of righteous heat on top of that already blown by the seven trumpets and set loose by the seven seals. Seven bowls will finally exhaust God’s anger (777 overcomes 666), but in doing so they exhaust the entirety of creation. Chapter 16 ominously narrates a time of climatic upheaval: land, water and air, the whole cosmos will bear the full brunt of a climate apocalypse. People will gnaw their tongues in agony, and then incited by demons, the kings of the earth will prepare for final battle. It should make for an uplifting sermon next Sunday, a good week to invite a friend to church.
For now, the beginning of the end commences with a solemn ceremony: seven angels dressed in white process from the heavenly temple with some serious hot dish in hand. The last time Revelation mentioned a bowl was back in chapter 5. There the bowls were filled with incense, wafting prayers of the saints for justice up to heaven. Here those prayers get answered as bowls of incensed ruin rain down on the earth. Evil inhabitants of the earth may deserve it, we’re still made uneasy by the R-rated nature of God’s just desserts. We want abusers and oppressors to get what they deserve—just not at the expense of God’s reputation. As if sensing this dissonance, Revelation inserts a hymn to reorient perspective; a song to reinforce God’s trustworthy nature: “Great and amazing are your deeds, Lord God the Almighty. Just and true are your ways, King of the nations. Who will not fear and glorify your name? For you alone are holy. All nations will come and worship before you, for your right judgments have been revealed.”
Gathered for the heavenly equivalent of a football victory parade, the justified rejoice as more than conquerors, jamming on their guitars beside a glassy sea—a once turbulent ocean, the abode of the beast, now calmed by the righteous work of the Lord. The new song being sung is not totally new. Called the song of the Lamb and the song of Moses, it’s a compilation of the Old Testament’s Greatest Hits. The Psalms, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, Micah—their lyrics are all here. That Moses gets mention takes us back to God’s triumph over Pharaoh’s army at the Red Sea. Likewise the mention of the tent of witness afterwards calls to mind the sojourn of God with his people through the desert on their way to the Promised Land. The Lord who worked righteousness in the past through Moses has done right again through Christ. As horrible as Revelation can sound, this righteous song plays to the tune of redemption. Its closing refrain celebrates the ultimate outcome: “All nations will come and worship before you…” Every knee will bow down and tongue confess Christ the Lamb as Lord.
Revelation inserts music into the midst of its mayhem, worship into the throes of woe due to the way praise taps into God’s power. To praise the Lord awakens our own voices, renews our hope, assuages our worry, sturdies our convictions and reinforces resolve. Standing to sing the same songs on Sundays sometimes may feel like the blithe strumming of harps. But on those Sundays when anxiety and fear and doubt overwhelms, when you’ve been beaten down or abandoned and your faith is fragile—on those Sundays, to stand and to sing is an act of defiance against those forces that conspire to do you in. To stand and to sing calms the storms of your heart and frees your soul from their captive gloom. There is undeniable power in the simple praise of God.
To stand and praise God is to participate in Revelation’s chorus. You picture yourself where you will one day be. Doomsday scenarios pale when compared to the joyous preview of your resurrected future. My stomach in knots as I watched the Patriots pull it out over the Ravens last night, I recalled cheering as their victory parade made their way through Boston streets back in the day. And not only three Super Bowl champion Patriot teams, but two NBA Titles, three World Series trophies and a Stanley Cup all paraded right past our church. But who’s counting? During every parade, the thrill of victory united people of every age and color, every nationality and economic status. Strangers smiled at strangers, rich and poor, black, white and brown all jostled and bumped, gladly helping each other up whenever the happiness knocked them over. The crowd went wild as the victors rode by, a contagion of joy spread from the championship courts and fields and ice where it began.
Of course it’s easy, and even right, to be cynical when it comes to millionaire men playing childhood games. I mentioned last November a book entitled Touchdowns for Jesus and Other Signs of the Apocalypse. It lambastes the systemic dysfunction of professional and BCS college football using a theological lens. Persuaded by the author’s argument, as well as tired of all the concussions and cheating and racism and reported domestic abuse, I took my stand by disconnecting from ESPN and DirecTV, which meant perching precariously on my roof to dismantle my dish. At the same time, it is hard to be cynical about championship tears of gladness streaming down the faces of pro athletes, who despite having all the money in the world, can never buy this one thing they treasured. It has to be won. Being the obvious hypocrite that I am, this also means I need one of you to invite me to your house to watch the BCS Championship tomorrow night and provide tasty snacks.
The book’s author almost has it right: football “captures our imagination and elicits our deepest emotional outpourings much more than any religion does.” I say almost, but not always. If you were in attendance over Christmas, the beautiful and inspiring worship surrounding Christ’s coming, enjoyed throughout December, elicited for us levels of deep emotion even better than football. There is undeniable power in the simple praise of God. And as for “capturing our imagination,” it was hard to beat the broadway carols, Texas two-step, Elsa, Anna, power wheels tractors, unicorns, blowing snow, and marching band on display during our Christmas Eve Family Service—even though these served the cause of missing the point of Christmas (thanks to Mary and a wailing baby Jesus for getting us back on point).
Stepping into another New Year, the worries and fears already look a lot like the last. It’s hard to see how a babe in a manger can make any difference; not to mention a Savior strung up on a cross. Back when I painted my backboard, the Ducks were a joke in football and basketball, a joke only made worse by their dumb choice of mascot. Way before Nike took over their uniform design, Oregon’s licensed use of Donald Duck to instill fear in opponents worked about as well as a Tar Heel or Red Sock. Back when I first moved to Boston, the Patriots got pounded by the Bears in a Super Bowl, the Sox lost the World Series on that dribbler through Bill Buckner’s legs, Larry Bird retired and nobody cared about the Bruins—all this before more years of futility and Pedro Martinez calling the Yankees his daddy. Had Boston fans known back then what we know now—including being chosen this week as America’s next Olympic bid—their fans might have endured those horrible sports years with a much less despair. Have hope ye Vikings!
Revelation gives glimpse of a fixed and victorious future. Assured that God’s kingdom comes, we can manage any miserable meantime with joy. More than that, with our eyes fixed on a guaranteed victory, dressed in cool uniforms, we can take part in faithfully paving the way for the parade.
C.S. Lewis memorably observed in Mere Christianity: “If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next. The Apostles themselves, who set on foot the conversion of the Roman Empire, the faithful who built up the Middle Ages, the English Evangelicals who abolished the Slave Trade, all left their mark on earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with Heaven. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this. Aim at Heaven and you will get earth thrown in: aim only at earth and you get neither.”
Inasmuch as we become what we worship, we are shaped by our praise into the image of Jesus. Baptized and clothed with Christ himself, dressed in the coolest uniform ever, we do more than pave the way for the parade. We get to ride in it.