by Daniel Harrell
Hearing this text that inspired verses of the Hallelujah Chorus surely gets us ready for Advent: “The kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord, and of his Christ; and he shall reign for ever and ever.” Many of us will enjoy again the ageless, majestic strains of Handel’s Messiah this coming season. Though most churches use Advent as a ramp up to the Nativity, the church calendar schedules Advent as an apocalyptic time, which is why the Messiah gets sung so much. It’s mostly about the end of the world. We sing it around here at Easter time too, inasmuch as the resurrection marks the beginning of the new creation Revelation previews. This morning’s text also mentions the Ark of the Covenant, which if you can remember back, was the topic of this past Easter’s sermon. A gold-covered, coffin-like box with the Ten Commandments tucked inside, the Ark of the Covenant represented the palpable presence of God Almighty on earth. Atop the box sat the “mercy seat,” a replica of the Lord’s heavenly throne. With Revelation’s commencement of Christ’s eternal reign here in chapter 11, it makes sense for his throne to make an appearance.
It’s the first time we’ve seen the Ark and the mercy seat since the Old Testament. Having the Ark in your midst, the King in your corner, was presumably a good thing for God’s people. But as with any good thing, you soon presume upon it and take it for granted. With the Ark in the Temple, the people thought they had God in their pocket; insurance against trouble rather than incentive to lead a righteous and merciful life. Gratitude soured into entitlement and grace became permission to do as you pleased. Not one to be treated quite so contemptuously, the Lord forsook the Temple, leaving it to be sacked by Israel’s ancient enemies with the Ark carted off to only God knew where. Though the Temple was rebuilt, the Ark remained absent until the last trumpet in Revelation 11. The world becomes God’s kingdom at last. Fireworks go off to celebrate Christ’s coronation: “flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, an earthquake, and heavy hail.” Easter and the Fourth of July rolled into one. The Lord is back on his throne and reigns forever. Hallelujah!
Perceptive listeners will rightly wonder what the Temple and Ark are doing in Revelation since last Sunday this preacher made such a big deal about there being no Temple in the New Jerusalem. I went on and on about how we the church are now the place where the Lord palpably dwells, a living stone Temple and Ark, the visible presence of the invisible Jesus—the body of Christ on earth, a genuine sign of the apocalypse at peace with one another, in harmony with one another, not judging one another, agreeing with one another, serving one another, bearing with one another, forgiving one another, comforting one another, encouraging one another toward love and good deeds, just like the Bible says. So then what’s with the heavenly Temple and the Ark John sees here? It’s a temporary shelter, I think, much like its predecessor, the Tabernacle in Exodus. We’re not to the New Jerusalem yet, not yet arrived in the Promised Land. We still have eleven more chapters of Revelation to go. So then why the Last Trumpet? Why are we singing Hallelujah now?
Technically, there’s no hallelujah yet. We’ll get to that in chapter 19 (sometime around Easter). Still, there is a foretaste in this morning’s passage. It reminds me of the first time I sang Handel’s Messiah. I was 12 years old and one of two tenors in our little church choir, mostly because my voice hadn’t changed. Our southern Congregational church could only muster 15 singers, most of them cousins with a few neighbors thrown in. Our organ was an old Hammond jobber, good for gospel tunes, but not really adequate for anything classical. Nevertheless, we somehow lassoed an experienced choir director named Esther who got it in her bonnet that our tiny choral clan could somehow pull off Part 1 of Handel’s Messiah in time for Advent, and including the Hallelujah Chorus. We concluded the woman had lost her cotton-picking mind. The 15 singers dropped down to 13 as two people bailed after hearing this plan. Who had time for all the rehearsal required only to end up totally humiliated in time for Christmas?
Last Sunday’s sermon featured some total humiliation. In the first half of Revelation 11, two witnesses, assigned as God’s envoys of peace on earth, become casualties instead. They take the gospel to the nations only to have the nations rage at the gospel’s offensiveness. Grace does assume you’re a sinner in need of repentance. True enough when we’re bad, but also true when we’re good. Christianity assumes our inability to be moral or ethical people. This isn’t because we all fail to uphold certain ideals on occasion, but because even in those occasions when we’re good, our goodness is always tinged with self-interest. Nothing pure issues forth from human hands, nothing escapes from the fallibility and brokenness in which we are inevitably implicated. Jesus talked about bearing good fruit, but also about being good trees. Motives matter. He told us to pray inside closets and not let our left hand know what our right hand is doing, such is our capacity for arrogance and self-congratulation. He didn’t just talk about adultery, but lust, and asked those of us who have never murdered if we’ve ever been filled with hatred and said that one’s just as bad as the other. Nobody likes to hear this.
The two witnesses—representing the gospel witness of the whole church—are equipped with super powers to coerce compliance: they can stop rain, turn rivers to blood, summon plagues and crisp unrepentant sinners with fire spewed from their lips. And yet they refrain from this power. Instead, like Jesus, they submit to the hostility the gospel engenders. The infamous Beast of Revelation, the essence of evil, rises out of the Abyss and destroys the witnesses and abandons their bodies to rot in the streets. This was a deep indignity, a humiliation akin to crucifixion itself. Delighted crowds merrily dance around the dead bodies, glad to finally be rid of the righteous Christians and their tormenting gospel.
We’d be deeply dismayed by all this were humiliating defeat not gospel proof of victory. Three days later, the breath of God enters the dead witnesses and they stand on their feet and get raised up to heaven, just like Jesus. As the body of Christ we are the body of Christ on earth, living out our life as Jesus lived out his. Not only do we strive for truth and justice and peace and reconciliation and love and grace, but we suffer for it too. Yet this is good news. “Rejoice and be glad for your reward is great in heaven,” Jesus said. “Whoever loses their life for me will save it… and I will raise them up on the last day.”
This morning’s passage dawns the last day. The seventh angel blows his trumpet and a loud choir in heaven heralds the changing of the guard. Kingdom comes. The twenty-four elders representing the redeemed, from whom we’ve heard nary a peep since chapter 4, fall to their faces and exclaim Finally! “Thank God Almighty, the One who is and who was, for you have finally assumed your power and taken over!”
For those keeping track, it appears the elders have left out a line. Back in chapter 4 they sang of the Lord as the one “who is and who was and who is to come.” Some Bible editors, figuring John must have made a translation mistake, inserted the future tense back into a few ancient manuscripts, but the omission of the future tense is intentional because with the last trumpet the future is now. Depending on whose side you stand, this could be bad news. The trumpet that sounds Christ’s coronation also blows evil to bits. For the nations that rage against God’s gracious rule, justice rolls down with fine-tuned precision. The persecuted become the potentates and the destroyers of the earth are destroyed. God avenges his persecuted people and his polluted creation. The New Jerusalem brings with it a whole new earth.
But again, the New Jerusalem is ten chapters away. So why the Last Trumpet now? Revelation is not set up to be read chronologically. Not only does it depict events of the past and present as well as the future, but its subsections repeat and reiterate similar events in dissimilar ways. Revelation is not a timeline so much as a story line whose message repeats itself to make sure you get it. Its reruns also underscore the familiar “already-not yet” nature of Christian apocalypse. The world has become the kingdom of God, even though the king has yet to duke it out with the devil. Christians have been already raised with Christ even as we still live and breathe on earth. Therefore you need not fret over the crosses you bear or about losing your life. You run a race you’ve already won. Resurrection and victory are certain, despite the crosses and races we suffer. “Rejoice and be glad,” Jesus said. “We boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God,” the apostle Paul added, “but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope that does not disappoint, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit given to us.”
This Thursday some of us will suffer tight stockings and ill-fitting buckled hats, dressed as Pilgrims for Colonial’s annual Thanksgiving Day service. We’ll gather to show gratitude Puritan-style, recalling our forebears of faith who looked with keen anticipation for the establishment of Christ’s righteous kingdom on earth. Our erstwhile colonial predecessors were not merely interested in formulating Calvinistic concepts about the end of the world. They wanted to actively engage as witnesses in the real life-and-death struggle Revelation portrays. They were serious Christians who spent their entire lives ready to die. Whatever their failings, the Puritans strove everyday to see Christ’s love in everything, to live according to his teachings and precepts, and to give up attachments to worldly pleasures in anticipation of that closer spiritual union which death would bring.
The eighteenth century’s Jonathan Edwards, a Puritan descendent and widely acknowledged to be America’s most important and original philosophical theologian, reminded his congregations week after week, how those sitting comfortably one Sunday might be in the grave by the next. Resisting God’s grace was like walking on a rotten piece of canvas, able at any moment to give way to the weight of sin and plunge the pernicious into a godless eternity. By contrast, to be filled with Christ’s spirit made for a weightless exuberance, an easy yoke and light burden freed from the cares of this world, always ready to rise into everlasting glory. Holding to the hope of sharing the glory of God, Edwards cultivated daily gratitude and and praise and submission to his Savior.
“Time is very short,” he preached, “which renders it precious. The scarcity of any commodity occasions men to set a higher value upon it, especially if it be necessary and they cannot do without it. Time is the more to be prized by men, because a whole eternity depends upon it, and yet we have but little of it. You have need to improve every talent, advantage and opportunity to your utmost while time lasts, for it will soon be said of you, according to the oath of the angel in Revelation, time should be no longer…” when the last trumpet sounds.
Time was running out on our little choir’s preparation to sing hallelujah. In classic Puritan fashion, Esther the choirmaster pressed us to be active participants in the real life-and-death struggle of getting Handel’s Messiah ready for Advent. We had need to improve every talent, advantage and opportunity to the utmost. We were coming up on the end of our world. To help, she recruited a few pitch-perfect saviors from a local college to teach our tiny tenor and bass sections during choir practice. Because we still struggled, the choirmaster also made us come to her house to practice, hoping against hope that we might get it right. We rehearsed three and four times a week, our own hallelujah hell, memorizing lines and notes and transitions, suffering whatever it took to whip ourselves into a choral harbinger of hope. When the last trumpet blew and the big night finally came, a festive crowd gathered in rapt anticipation. Our organist trembled and squawked the early notes, but then segued into the familiar and comforting lullaby of the first tenor solo, which I totally botched. We bungled and bugled all the way to the last Hallelujah, causing the congregation to pray, I was sure, that the world might end then and there. We. Sounded. Awful.
For all we know the last trumpet note here in Revelation 11 may have been a clunker too. New Jerusalem is not yet and the Ark, while resurfacing, stays safely ensconced in the sky. Popular depictions of the end have the faithful flying away to heaven, but turn ahead to the end of Revelation and you’ll actually see heaven flying down to us. The New Jerusalem descends to the earth and into the hearts of God’s people, just like the Holy Spirit did at Pentecost. The Spirit dropped down on a motley crew of off-key disciples and turned them into a festival chorus of praise whose gospel song upended the whole world order. A true harbinger of hope, the church is God’s Temple, the body of Christ on earth, a preview of new creation. In church, God’s will gets done on earth as it is in heaven. Resources are justly shared so that none have to hunger or fear. In church, those bear the burdens of inequity or social marginalization outside can find dignity and worth inside—the low level worker at the high rise corporate office can sit on the Council even as the corporation president sits in the pew. In church, suffering gets redeemed and gratitude gets fueled by grace. In church, failure and defeat serve as the fertile ground for resurrection. In church, even tone-deaf renditions of Handel’s Messiah still manage to sing Hallelujah!
We tread a rotting canvas of our own as a choir that Advent night, ready to give way at any moment due to the heavy and unharmonious weight of our singing. Buoyed only by the spirit and God’s mercy, we somehow made it to the last Hallelujah. At that point, the faithful congregation of our little Southern church enthusiastically rose up with loud claps of thanksgiving and transported us to glory with showers of blessing and sweet tears of joy. So warm was the reception that Esther the choirmaster told us if we got serious and rehearsed hard we might make The Messiah Part 2 just in time for Easter.