Sunday, June 3, 2012

Trinity Sunday: Worship and the Apocalypse

Opening Sentence
Jesus said, "I am the light of the world; whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but have the light of life." John 8:12

Collect of the Day
Almighty and everlasting God, you have given to us your servants grace, by the confession of a true faith, to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity, and in the power of your divine Majesty to worship the Unity: Keep us steadfast in this faith and worship, and bring us at last to see you in your one and eternal glory, O Father; who with the Son and the Holy Spirit live and reign, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Psalter: Psalm 111, 112, 113

Lessons: Job 38:1-11, 42:1-5; Revelation 19:4-16; John 1:29-34

The vision of Revelation, as my old seminary professor Robert Mulholland so aptly points out in his brilliant but unfortunately out of print commentary, presents two contrasting realities, symbolized by two cities: New Jerusalem and Fallen Babylon. The citizens of these cities are characterized, respectively, by worship of God and worship of the beast. As the vision unfolds, this overarching theme of worship becomes clear. Revelation is best understood holistically, as one synchronous vision. The central event of the vision, around which all other events turn and eventually return to, is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Through his death and resurrection, Jesus “has conquered” and is therefore worthy to “open the scroll and the seven seals” (5:5). Through this one decisive act, God has revealed his whole will and purpose. All creation is invited to join in the song around the throne of glory. That is, all creation is invited to enter into the experience of worship. Indeed, all creation does worship, but some do not worship around the throne. Some worship, instead, the image of the beast and join with the dragon in his rebellion against God. But whether you worship the one true God or any number of imitations, the message of John’s vision in Revelation is worship shapes and defines your character and identity.

Throughout Revelation, there is developed the contrast between the redeemed order and the rebellious order, that is, New Jerusalem and Fallen Babylon, each in the process of being conformed to the image of that which they worship. The redeemed, “coming out of the great tribulation”(7:14ff), stand before God’s throne and “serve him day and night in his temple,” gradually experiencing more and more of the fullness of God’s presence around them until, at last, all hunger, thirst, pain, and tears are done away with. The rebellious, conversely, worship the beast and imagine it to be invincible, saying, “Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?” (13:4).

The idea of human beings worshiping the image of “the beast” is hardly an innovation. When the people of Israel became impatient waiting for Moses to come down from Mount Sinai (Exodus 32), they made for themselves a golden calf and worshiped it as their god. When Moses finally did come down from the mountain, he found the Israelites behaving much like the beast they were worshiping. Similarly, those who follow after “the beast” in Revelation eventually become much like that which they worship. Thus, what would seem initially to be an ascription of praise becomes a comical farce. “Who is like the beast?” Those who worship the beast are “like the beast.” Having created a god ostensibly in their own image, they have become enslaved by what it represents, namely, their own vanity and self-indulgent passions.

As the redeemed and the rebellious are conformed, respectively, to the image of that which they worship, they each begin longing for the ultimate outcome of the choice they have made. The redeemed long for God to complete his work of redemption and vindicate those who have suffered at the hands of the rebellious. The souls under the altar cry out, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” (6:10). Most dramatic, however, is the prayer at the end of the book, “Come, Lord Jesus!” (22:20). This is the prayer of the church for all things to be made complete, for redemption in its fullness at the personal, corporate, and cosmic levels. It expresses the church’s longing for the victory of God in Christ to be made manifest throughout all creation.

Conversely, the rebellious begin to cry out for their own destruction, longing for death in order that they might be relieved of the intolerable suffering which they have brought upon themselves. It is a relief they do not receive. For those who worship the beast and its image “have no rest, day or night” (14:11). Yet, “the dead who die in the Lord” are to “rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them” (14:13). The “rest” here is the Sabbath which yet remains for the followers of the Lamb but will be forever out of the reach of “these worshipers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name” (14:11). They will be trapped in an endless cycle of labor, suffering, and pain, symbolized in “the number of the beast,” six hundred sixty six (666).

The marriage supper of the Lamb (19:9) provides another stark contrast between the redeemed and the rebellious. For the redeemed, it is a feast of celebration, complete with a loud, heavenly chorus (19:6-8). For the beast and its followers, it is a dinner of doom in which they are the main course for “all the birds that fly directly overhead” (19:17ff).

Whatever other impressions one gets from reading the Apocalypse, one comes through loud and clear: worship is an inescapable reality of life. If we worship God, we will become like him: holy, righteous, pure, and truly alive. If we worship the beast, we will become like it: corrupt, vile, ruthless, and ultimately devoid of life.

(JAG)

Revelation Song