7:9-10 Revelation 22:8-17
Anyone who knows me at all knows that I have little time for
sentimentality. And therefore
whenever I am moved I like to think that what moves me is eversomuch deeper than
sentimentality. I am always moved
when I read the text for today’s sermon. “The
Spirit and the Bride say ‘Come’. And
let him who hears say ‘Come.’ And
let him who is thirsty come, let him who desires take the water of life without
It’s a word of invitation, a word of promise, a word of profound
comfort. I find it the warmest word
of scripture arising within the most violent book of scripture.
You will have noticed that this text is found at the very end of John’s
treatise. In order to grasp what it
means, then; in order to grasp the overwhelming force of its invitation and
promise and comfort we have to understand why John wrote his book and what he
aimed to do through it.
We all know that the book of Revelation has been misused time and again.
Religious eccentrics have long cherished it as the grab-bag out of which
they can pull any religious oddity at all.
Those of us who think of ourselves as non-eccentric; we still find the
notions in it bizarre and the pictures bloody: a river of gore that flows up to
the level of a horse’s bridle, a dragon that fumes and spews as it slays
Paradoxically, this violent book has comforted untold Christians,
especially the bereaved. We read it
at virtually every funeral or interment. “They
shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more...God will wipe away every tear
from their eyes.”
The truth is, John was a pastor. He
wrote in order to lend encouragement and strength to Christians who were
suffering terrible persecution. A
tidal wave of persecution had engulfed the church in the year 65 during the
reign of Emperor Nero. Thirty years
later, in the year 95 Emperor Domitian was every bit as cruel.
Another wave of persecution, another wave of torture and death, was
bending Christians away from their conviction concerning Jesus Christ and their
public confession of him. John
wanted to encourage and strengthen the people who were dear to him.
We don’t read very far into John’s book, however, when we realize
that John communicates with his people through pictures.
The pictures are immense, grotesque, and surreal all at once -- almost as
if they came out of a science-fiction novel.
But they don’t. They come
from the older testament, particularly from the books of Ezekiel and Daniel.
John takes the pictures that his foreparents drew and applies them, in
the light of Christ’s truth and triumph, to his suffering congregation.
I have already said that John’s chief purpose is to encourage his
people. But encouragement is not the
same as mollycoddling. John knows
that if people are to be helped profoundly they must first hear the truth about
themselves. And so John opens his
book with his “Letters To The Seven Churches In The Province Of Asia.”
Now there were certainly more than seven congregations throughout
. But seven is the biblical symbol
for completeness or wholeness. In
speaking of the seven churches John is writing about the entire
throughout the world.
The church at
possesses energy and endurance and a sensitive nose for sniffing out
theological error. Good.
Unfortunately, says John, the church at
also lacks love. Rightly hating
error and evil, it has come to have a frigid heart. The
is both praised and blamed (as are several other churches, albeit for different
The church at
is praised without qualification. It
has suffered terribly and yet has remained steadfast.
John urges it not to give up.
The church at Thyatira is cautioned: it is currently tempted to
compromise, and it must not. John
did not have our modern, cavalier attitude to compromise.
Truth is truth; righteousness is righteousness; faithfulness has to be
faithfulness and nothing else.
Our foreparents were possessed of greater conviction here than we.
John Bunyan, the best-loved Puritan writer (Pilgrim’s
Progress, among 60 other books); John Bunyan was imprisoned in a festering
jail for thirteen years. He had four
children, one of whom, Mary, was blind. Day-by-day
Mary, a young teenager, groped and stumbled her way to her father’s cell in
order to bring him more food than the jail provided.
Bunyan was near-frantic about Mary. “If
I die in here”, he said (and it was likely that he would) how will my blind
daughter survive in the world? Who
will look out for her?” Authorities who saw his concern told him he didn’t
have to remain in prison; he could go home that afternoon.
All he had to do was sign a paper saying he would never preach again.
And so Bunyan remained in jail for thirteen years.
Compromise? The word
disgusted him. After all, the gospel
is the gospel; and betrayal is disgraceful.
The church in Laodicaea isn’t praised at all; it is simply blamed.
Nothing good can be said about it. “Neither
hot nor cold”, says John, “about as attractive and useful as a bucket of
tepid spit.” (John’s speech is
never dainty; he prefers to be effective.) Yet
there is still hope for the church in Laodicaea.
Jesus Christ has not yet given up on it.
“Behold I stand at the door and knock...”
-- one of the all-time
favourite verses. But not the
stained glass picture of the gentle Jesus tap, tap tapping.
He’s hammering on the door.
The congregation in Laodicaea has to wake up.
Our Lord needs to knock loudly enough to wake the dead.
Seven churches. In other
words, you can find churches throughout the entire world just like these.
More to the point, in any one congregation you can find all seven
represented. In any one
congregation’s life there are features to be praised, features to be blamed,
and sleeping people who need to be awakened.
But if they are awakened, what are they awakened to know?
John tells us in his vision of the sealed scroll.
The question is asked, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its
seals?” The scroll contains
God’s plan and purpose in redeeming the world.
Until the scroll is opened God’s redemption won’t be known; more
importantly, until the scroll is opened God’s redemption won’t become
operative. Until the scroll is
opened, then, the world will only lurch and stagger as it has since the Fall,
one step removed from chaos, human beings locked into their depravity and only
worsening things whenever they try to wrench the world right.
John is so upset at the prospect of the world’s hopelessness -- since
no one is worthy to open the scroll -- that he weeps.
Then he hears a voice. “Weep
not; lo, the Lion of the Tribe of Judah has conquered; he
can open the scroll and its seven seals.”
John looks up, expecting to see the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, the
Messiah. He looks up and looks for a
lion, and instead sees a lamb. The
Messiah is a lamb. And
this lamb is haemorrhaging. This
lamb is worthy to open the sealed scroll.
Now the bleeding lamb that John sees is no ordinary lamb; it has
seven horns and seven eyes. Horn is
the Hebrew symbol for strength, power, might; eye, the Hebrew symbol for wisdom.
In other words, it is in the crucified one that the world will ultimately
be rescued from chaos and bloodshed, for in the crucified one are found the
whole wisdom and the whole power of God.
Make no mistake. It will
require the whole wisdom and the whole power of God to save God’s creation
from the evil that afflicts it, for evil is unspeakably evil.
How evil it is John tells us in his vision of the plague of locusts.
There are seven plagues in the book of Revelation.
(In other words, the world is wholly
afflicted.) We shall look at one
plague only, that of the locusts.
These locusts or grasshoppers are unusual grasshoppers.
They don’t devour grain; they devour men and women.
How can they? Just look at
how big they are: as big as horses, John says.
Their tails have stingers, like a scorpion.
Their antennae are as long and as numerous as a woman’s hair (in other
words, nothing escapes their sensory apparatus).
Their scales are like armour-plate. When
they beat their wings they sound like an army of chariots or tanks.
John is telling us that evil is immense, evil is a power beyond our
imagining, evil is a supernatural power that only the visionary with
supernatural vision (like John himself) can describe.
There is one last feature to these fearsome, horse-sized locusts:
THEY HAVE A HUMAN FACE. “Never
forget”, says John, “that while evil is a cosmic power, it wears a human
In my reading of biography and history I have become acquainted with some
of the most cruel people the world has seen.
As I read of these people I expected to find men and women whose
appearance was subhuman, ogreish, even men and women who appeared monstrous,
unrecognizable. In every case I have
been sobered to learn that they were ordinary; so ordinarily human.
They didn’t appear grotesque or nightmarish.
They have been as ordinarily human as you or I.
Adolf Eichmann was noted for the tenderness he had for his family.
Heinrich Himmler was no more notable than the clerk at Mac’s Milk.
Klaus Barbie, the “butcher of
”; before he perfected his torture-techniques Klaus Barbie was
Speaking of Barbie; when he was extradited from South America and brought
to stand trial for his wartime torment of French citizens it was assumed that
he would be convicted and given the severest sentence possible.
Then the lawyer defending Barbie began letting French skeletons out of
the closet. “You say that Barbie
tortured and maimed people in the French resistance movement”, said the
lawyer, “but only 1% of
’s people joined the resistance movement.
Among the other 99% were many who collaborated with the occupation.
The politicians and church-leaders and educators whom we esteem today;
many of those who assisted Barbie were among the 99% who didn’t resist.
If the government of
tries Barbie, why doesn’t it try countless French citizens who supported
him?” Evil, however monstrous a
power, always wears a human face. “Furthermore”,
continued Barbie’s lawyer, “as bad as German treatment of French people was,
French treatment of Algerians has been as bad if not worse.
If you proceed to convict my client, I will name (and ruin) prominent
French people who secretly permitted or authorized shocking atrocities with
respect to the Algerians.” All of
a sudden many highly placed people in
decided that Barbie’s trial should be concluded as quickly and quietly as
In the 1920s and 30s journalists from
. They saw the Stalinist purges
first-hand. They witnessed
Stalin’s systematic starvation of the Ukrainians.
They then wrote newspaper and magazine articles telling the world that
Stalin was a good man. To be sure,
he was a bit rough around the edges, but an effective leader nonetheless; what
he aimed at was good. Why, Stalin
had even been a theology student at one time.
And so the British and American intelligentsia willfully blinded
themselves to what was happening and wrote well of him.
Why are intellectuals (so-called) so very stupid?
Because they cannot believe that evil is evil when they see the smiling
human face. Naively, intellectuals
assume that the smiling human face can’t be evil; they don’t realize that a
human face is the principal face evil wears.
Then what is to be done in the wake of this?
How are Christians to act? We
move now to another of John’s visions, the vision of the little scroll.
The big scroll, we saw a minute ago, the big scroll only the slain lamb
could unseal and unleash. The little
scroll contains the same message as the big scroll.
John is told to eat it. He
eats it and finds that it tastes sweet as honey.
A short time later, however, he has a dreadful stomach-ache.
Christian people find the truth of God sweet to their palate; we rightly
love the taste of the gospel and the truth by which the gospel exposes illusions
and the integrity that the gospel lends us.
But Christians find too that as much as we savour the gospel, the gospel
collides with the world and brings suffering upon us, as it did for our Lord
Those journalists who kept telling the world that Stalin was a good
fellow even as they witnessed his carnage; an American journalist with the New York Times who lied extremely well was awarded a Pulitzer prize
for his deliberate falsehood. There
was one British journalist, however, who saw the truth, told the truth, and kept
on telling the truth in defiance of his superiors: Malcolm Muggeridge.
And because of his dedication to the truth born of his own integrity,
Muggeridge was fired. Not only was
he unemployed, he was unemployable. Angry
British officials saw to that. And
all he did was tell the truth? The
little scroll tastes sweet, as it should, since gospel-righteousness is
sweet. Yet as we eat it, which we
must, it gives us stomach-ache.
Who, exactly who, is the occasion of the Christian’s stomach-ache?
The monster from the abyss, plus the great whore.
(I told you earlier in the sermon that John was never dainty.)
The monster from the abyss and the great whore collaborate, says John.
The great whore is affluence, the affluence that John saw in affluent
and the city’s empire. Affluence
seduces people away from single-minded devotion to Jesus Christ, says John.
It did then and it does now. Concerning
this whore John writes, “The merchants of the earth have grown rich with the
wealth of her wantonness.”
Affluence fosters an addiction to greater affluence.
As a nation’s energies are given over to making its people affluent two
things happen. In the first place,
ever-increasing affluence becomes the preoccupation of the people.
They will give up anything for greater affluence.
They become shallow, shrivelled in spirit, cruel, coarse and insensitive.
In the second place, a few of the nation’s people become astoundingly
rich. As colossal sums of money
become concentrated in only a few hands, those few hands become tyrannical.
For this reason John tells us that the great whore (affluence) rides
around on the back of the monster from the abyss (tyranny).
Doesn’t it make you nervous that 80% of the stock traded on the Toronto
Stock Exchange is owned by only twenty families?
John insists, however, that we not point the finger.
No one has the right to say to a high-profile family, “You are
extraordinarily corrupt.” In an
affluent society everyone is beguiled
by mammon, says John, everyone is
spiritually corrupted and impoverished. We
can resist this only as we turn our gaze from the seductions of the great whore
and look upon Christ alone.
“Is it all bleak?”, someone asks, “doesn’t John recognize a
genuine human good in life
somewhere?” Yes he does.
In fact, John is as quick to acknowledge genuine human achievement as any
humanist is. When John speaks of the
New Jerusalem (which is the kingdom of God or the creation of God healed) he
tells us that the kings of the earth are going to bring their
glory into it. Not God’s glory
(they have no jurisdiction over that), but
their glory; the profoundest human accomplishments are going to have a
glorious place in the New Jerusalem. John
knows that human cultural achievements are glorious indeed.
He knows that the very best of human creativity will be honoured in the
. Nothing of genuine worth in
God’s sight will ever be lost.
John knows that however cruel tyrannical
might be, however shallow and decadent affluent
might be, there remains in it much that is humanly good.
And this good, of genuine worth in God’s sight, God will preserve.
Then what is the human glory that will find its place in the
-- the philosophical wisdom of ancient
-- the legal and administrative genius of ancient
-- the architectural genius of mediaeval
-- the painting of the Dutch masters.
-- the dramas of the profoundest dramatists.
I often quote a line from Elie Wiesel, one of the premier writers of the
past fifty years and a Nobel prizewinner. Wiesel
says, “A poet’s word is worth a thousand pictures.”
Then the poet’s word will be preserved as well.
What about music? Myself, I
am especially fond of the music of Mozart. So
was Karl Barth, the most prolific theologian of the twentieth century.
Barth was strictly an amateur when it came to music.
Yet he had his opinions, like the rest of us.
In his opinion Bach and Beethoven were excellent musicians.
Bach, however, said Barth, tried too hard to make a point in his music.
Beethoven wrote about himself; his music was overtly autobiographical.
But Mozart; Mozart gave expression to sheer joy, sheer delight.
In a 1955 article Karl Barth wrote, “...our daily bread must also
include playing. I hear Mozart ...at
play. But play is something so lofty
and demanding that it requires mastery. And
in Mozart I hear an art of playing as I hear it nowhere else....When I hear
Mozart I am transported to the threshold of a world that in sunlight and storm,
by day and by night, is a good and ordered world.”
Nothing of genuine human worth will ever be lost in the
, the New Jerusalem.
It’s time to return to our text. “The
Spirit and the Bride say ‘Come’.” The
Spirit is the Spirit of God, the power in which Jesus Christ speaks and acts.
The Bride is the city of
, the New Jerusalem, the
, the entire creation healed. The
Spirit and the new creation that God established in the triumph of his Son over
the myriad plagues of evil and sin; the Spirit and the new creation call to us,
even as God himself renders it all believable and desirable.
The Spirit and the Bride say ‘Come’.
Let all who are thirsty take the water of life without price.
For from this city flows the water of life, and this life-giving water
strengthen our fellowship,
magnify our redeemer,
arm us to resist the plagues of evil,
equip us to fend off the seductions of affluence,
and even move us to treasure that human accomplishment which God will
Spirit and the Bride say ‘Come’. Let
all who are thirsty take the water of life without price.
There comes from the most violent book in the bible an invitation that
couldn’t be warmer.