Then I saw another portent in heaven, great and amazing: seven angels with seven plagues, which are the last, for with them the wrath of God is ended.
And I saw what appeared to be a sea of glass mixed with fire, and those who had conquered the beast and its image and the number of its name, standing beside the sea of glass with harps of God in their hands. And they sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb:
“Great and amazing are your deeds, Lord God the Almighty! Just and true are your ways, King of the nations! Lord, who will not fear and glorify your name? For you alone are holy.
All nations will come and worship before you, for your judgments have been revealed.” –Revelation 15:1-4 (NRSV)
Lately the lectionary has been taking us through the parables in the book of Matthew, in which we see the humanity of both the disciples and of Jesus. Now we come to a rather dramatic passage in the apocalyptic book of Revelation. Here we see Jesus revealed as both divine and supernatural, glorified as a king. Confusing? It is, but remember that Jesus is both fully human, and fully God.
Apocalyptic literature is somewhat difficult for 21st century Westerners to understand, because it uses bold imagery and metaphor. Here are a few of Merriam Webster’s definitions of the word apocalyptic:
- forecasting the ultimate destiny of the world : prophetic apocalyptic warnings
- foreboding imminent disaster or final doom : terrible apocalyptic signs of the coming end-times
- wildly unrestrained : grandiose
- ultimately decisive : climactic an apocalyptic battle
None of these things sound regular or common. Ultimate destiny, imminent disaster, wildly unrestrained, and ultimately decisive all sound like final things- big and scary things.
The apocalypse is not something to be feared, in spite of the dramatic metaphor and sometimes gory imagery used by the writer of Revelation. The apocalypse is a completion. It is an ending of the paradox we have lived our whole lives in which we have one foot in each kingdom. The heavenly kingdom comes into its completeness and fullness, while the earthly kingdom passes away.
In Christ we are given the privilege of having our sinful nature wiped away, and we become saints to live and reign with Jesus forever. Until that day we are in the process of being transformed- a little bit more saint, a little bit less sinner, by the grace of God.
In the process of becoming fully a part of the heavenly kingdom we may have to figuratively (and possibly literally) go through the fire, not as a punishment, and not because we have anything to earn or deserve. The grace of God in Christ cancels out any old notions that we can earn brownie points with God or that we “deserve” anything from Him because we try to be such “good children.” Many people question, “How can a good God allow His people to suffer?” There is no really good answer to that question. Sin (anything that goes against God’s will) has been a part of the earthly kingdom since the Fall, which was when we humans got the insane idea that we have a better way to do life than God does.
Jesus followers have a different perspective on suffering. We may not understand why we suffer, or how suffering could ever be considered a good thing, but we can only trust that He uses our trials and suffering to mold and shape us, and to get rid of what is not of Him, to prepare us for life in the heavenly kingdom where there is no sin or decay or entropy. Good and bad things happen to “good” and “evil” people alike, just as the rain drenches the fields regardless if the owner is good or evil. (Matthew 5:44-45) Everyone who lives on earth is equally subject to tragedy, disease, pestilence, decay, etc. because those things are part of the earthly condition (entropy). Earth and everything in it at this point, is temporary and is waiting to be remade.
Humans allowed sin to enter in to the earthly kingdom, which is also a question for God that we really can’t answer. Why did God allow sin to come into the world to begin with? We may never know the entire answer to the purpose of sin or suffering other than to know Jesus shares in our every suffering. We have been given the promise that God in Christ takes away our sin, He is beyond our suffering, and there is life in Christ beyond the suffering of this world.
This passage also talks about judgment, which is a squirmy subject for Lutherans, because we tend to (and I believe rightfully so) focus on the grace of God. We aren’t really into scary talk of hellfire and brimstone, and ultimately people are won over by the power of the Holy Spirit and the love of God, not by fear. While grace is not earned or deserved, and God pours His grace out on everyone, for grace to be effective it must be accepted and applied to our lives. Judgment enters in when people refuse to accept God’s grace, and when we insist on having our own way even when it is damaging ourselves and others. A wise pastor once said that if you are saved it is all to Jesus’ credit, but if you are damned, you chose that yourself.
Repentance is nothing more or less complicated than “doing a 180-“ seeing that what we are doing is not pleasing to God, and turning away from that thought or behavior. It’s not always easy, and that is why God gives us His grace, so that we can keep on coming back to Him so that He can transform our hearts and minds to conform to His will. (Romans 12:2)
Our salvation is not at all reliant on how well we “do life,” but on how we trust Jesus to refine and transform us. Salvation is not a one time event, but an ongoing process, a transformation that occurs as we grow in our relationship with Jesus. He walks with us. He’s been there. He is Holy God, but also one of us. The world as we know it is going to end. This world will pass away. Things are going to happen that are tragic, painful and destructive along the way. The good news is that in Christ we are never alone, and the best is yet to come.