Sunday, 26 May 2019

Apocalypse Now #4: Heaven’s perspective on prayer

Sermon preached at Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, 26 May 2019

Do you ever wonder what, on earth, is achieved by praying?
            Do you ever wonder what, if anything, is changed by praying?
            Is the world changed? Is God changed? Am I changed when I pray?

And at a metaphysical level,
            what could possibly be the mechanism
                        whereby the world in which a prayer is said
                        is a better world than one in which a prayer is not said?

And what about the problem of unanswered prayer,
            prayers that achieve nothing
            except offering us the spiritual equivalent of banging one’s head against a wall?

What on earth, and in heaven’s name, is point of prayer?

These are the questions that are burning in the minds and souls
            of those in the seven congregations of Asia Minor,
living under the thrall of the Roman Empire in the latter part of the first century,
            struggling to see how their faithful witness to Jesus,
            and their prayerful worship of him as Lord,
            is making any difference to anything at all.

And these are the questions that John addresses
            in these chapters from Revelation that we’re dealing with today
            as we continue our series looking at this often neglected book
                        that lurks at the end of the Bible
            waiting to transform the minds and imaginations
                        of anyone brave enough to venture beyond its opening chapters.

In our reading, we heard just a selection of verses,
            but as always I’d encourage you to take the time
            to sit and read these chapters through in their entirety.

You may remember from our readings from Revelation a couple of weeks ago
            that John has just described the opening of the seven seals on the little scroll;
and that each time a seal was cracked open,
            we got a glimpse of the judgment of God on the forces of empire and evil
                        that dominate the earth and deceive people into believing
                        that the empire and it’s emperor are gods to be worshipped.

After six seals worth of action, noise, violence, and destruction,
            at the opening of the seventh seal we get, unexpectedly,
            what feels like a moment of prayer.
There is suddenly silence in heaven for about half an hour.
            Everything stops.

Then John sees an angel burning an incense offering on the heavenly altar (8.3–4).
            And it becomes clear that the vision is taking its readers
            into a scene of worship, as a burnt offering is given to God.

Earlier in the Apocalypse, before the opening of the seals,
            You may remember that John has already seen
                        the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders
                        each holding a harp and a bowl;
            And we discovered in chapter five that the bowls contained
                        the incense of ‘the prayers of the saints’ (5.8).

It is this incense that is once again in view after the opening of the seventh seal,
            when it is presented as a burnt offering on the altar before God.

The fire of this burning incense is then thrown to the earth
            in preparation for the sounding of the seven trumpets (8.5).

The Old Testament background for this image is found in Ezek. 9.4–10.2,
            where a heavenly being throws burning coals from heaven to the earth,
            after marking the faithful on their foreheads (cf. 7.3).

And there is a further parallel between this story
            and that of Elijah and the prophets of Baal at Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18.20–40).
Elijah asks God for a sign to demonstrate to the people of Israel
            that the Lord is the true god,
            and the Lord accordingly sends fire from heaven.
This demonstration of divine power then triggers the judgement
            on the idolatrous prophets of Baal.

John reworks these images of divine judgement on evil
            to help those in his churches
understand the importance of their steadfast witness
            in the midst of difficulty and tribulation.

The fire from heaven that John sees in Revelation
            is sent as a result of the prayers of the faithful,
            and it reveals the reality of God’s rule.

The effect of this, for those receiving the text of his vision,
            is to motivate and encourage them in their praying.

The heavenly perspective is
            that it is the prayer and worship of the saints
that precedes the breaking of the seals,
            triggering the judgements on evil symbolized
            by the events of the sounding of the seven trumpets.

The seven trumpets and the events that they trigger
            are images designed to demonstrate
            the effectiveness of the prayers of the faithful,
especially in terms of divine judgement on evil.

The smoke of the prayers rises before the throne (8.4)
            and is then hurled back to the earth with dramatic effect (8.5, 7).

We passed over the details of the seven trumpet blasts in our reading,
            but the horrific events described in this series are problematic to many readers.

How can it be, one might ask,
            that the result of prayer
            should be the destruction of one third of the world?

What view of God is implied in such acts of vengeance and ruination?

In his poetical commentary on the book of Revelation,
            D.H. Lawrence articulates a characteristically negative reaction:

What we realize when we have read the precious book a few times is that John the Divine had on the face of it a grandiose scheme for wiping out and annihilating everybody who wasn’t of the elect, the chosen people, in short, and of climbing up himself right on to the throne of God.

Revelation, be it said once and for all, is the revelation of the undying will-to-power in man, and its sanctification, its final triumph. If you have to suffer martyrdom, and if all the universe has to be destroyed in the process, still, still, still, O Christian, you shall reign as a king and set your foot on the necks of the old bosses! This is the message of Revelation.

Interpreted in this way, Revelation becomes an imperialist text.
            It reflects a desire to conquer the earth, to subjugate enemies,
                        to dominate the cosmic order.

The apocalyptic hope, by this reading, becomes a yearning for power.

            The kingdom of heaven becomes victor over the kingdoms of the earth.
            Babylon gives way to the new Jerusalem,
                        and the saints rule for a thousand years.
            Revelation becomes, in short, a manifesto for Christendom.

In the same way, it supports the approach taken by many Christians in our world
            who identify Christianity with a drive for control or a desire for vindication.

However, this is not the only way of reading John’s imagery here.

I’ve said before that the starting point for any interpretation of Revelation
            needs to be the meaning it would have had for its original recipients.

Although the Apocalypse clearly has its origins in a context of empire,
            it is far from certain that the vision it presents
            is one where a Christian empire simply replaces the satanic one.

This is not a vision of revolution,
            although such a claim has been made countless times in the intervening millennia.

Rather, John pictures two kingdoms existing alongside each other,
            with the kingdom of heaven offering an alternative vision of humanity,
                        a different way of living in relation to the world and the divine.

To this end, he exhorts his audience to transfer their citizenship
            from Babylon to the new Jerusalem (cf. 18.4),
and it is in this context that the series of trumpet-judgements on the satanic empire
            need to be heard.

The reason the saints are praying
            for an end to the influence of the Empire on the earth
            is not so they can assume control in its place;
it is so that humanity can be freed from the idolatrous deception
            which leads to oppression by, and enslavement to, the beast of evil empire.

The images of judgement therefore need to be heard
            not from a perspective of imperial conquest,
with one empire overthrowing another
            and torturing the subjugated citizens in the process.

Rather, they need to be seen
            from the perspective of the oppressed and the enslaved.

Like Moses and the Israelites living in slavery in Egypt,
            desperate to see release from the oppressive power that held them captive,
John wants to lead the people of God from slavery into freedom.

The judgements on the evil empire therefore ultimately concern release,
            both for the people of God and for humanity as a whole,
and they are unleashed in response to the prayerful appeals of the faithful
            that freedom and justice might come upon the earth.

The imagery of destruction as it is described against both humans and the created order,
            becomes particularly ethically problematic
                        if the book is read as an attempt to describe actual events
                        that are occurring or will occur on the earth.

However, if this imagery is read as a metaphor
            for the destructive effects of human idolatry,
            for the events which follow the allying of people with the beast,
then it becomes instead a fitting image
            for the way in which evil sows the seeds of its own destruction
            and ultimately reaps the destructive harvest of its own making (cf. 14.18–20).

The harsh reality of human allegiance to the satanic empire
            is war, death, and destruction,
            and John’s imagery vividly portrays these effects.

What is significant in John’s scheme
            is that this destruction is not all-encompassing.

There is still hope that people will turn and repent
            in response to the judgements (9.20–1).

So the prayers of the people of God for an end to the evil empire
            assume a tenor, not of vengeance, but of hope for deliverance.

The first four trumpets function together as a set,
            much as the first four seal openings form a group (6.1–8).

The events that follow the first four trumpets
            echo events from the Exodus story, as this table illustrates:
Exodus Event
Trumpet Plague
Hail (7th plague; Ex. 9.13–35)
1)     Hail
Nile becomes blood & fish die
(1st plague; Ex. 7.14–24)
2)     Sea becomes blood
        Sea creatures die
Bitter water is sweetened (Ex. 15.22–6)
3)     Water becomes bitter
Darkness (9th plague; Ex. 10.21–9)
4)     Darkness

These echoes of the Exodus reinforce the point I’m making about
            interpreting the plagues as triggers of freedom.

Egypt, Babylon and Rome become synonymous with each other
            as earthly manifestations of the satanic empire
                        that draws worship away from God,
            and which oppresses and enslaves humanity.

John’s concern is that those in his churches
            should identify with the Israelites
            as fellow travellers on the path to freedom,
and that they should not be overwhelmed by the power of the Empire
            because the destruction of its oppressive regime is ultimately assured.

The Emperor who rules over Rome
            is as doomed as the Pharaoh who ruled over Egypt,
and if the people of God doubt this,
            they are identifying themselves with the grumbling people of Israel in the desert,
            who doubted that God would provide them with clean water.

The descriptions of the events that follow the fifth and sixth trumpets
            are greatly extended in comparison to the four that precede them.
In the fifth trumpet, John introduces the satanic agent Apollyon,
            who is a symbol for the Emperor.
John’s point here is that the Emperor may appear to be
            the king of a great and noble empire,
but when John sees him from heaven’s perspective
            he is just the king of a swarm of locusts
            devouring the earth in their own greed.

The sounding of the sixth trumpet triggers a vision of invasion from the east,
            as the four angels bound at the Euphrates are released and,
            together with two hundred million cavalry troops,
                        ride forth to decimate the earth (9.13–19).
This is John’s depiction of the tragic and terrible result
            of humanity’s ongoing alliance with the beast.
The empire begets violence and war at every turn.

At this point there is an interlude in the action,
            during which John eats the little scroll,
            and narrates the vision of the two witnesses.

In this story, John explores the content of the scroll he has just eaten,
            showing how the faithful witness of the Church
            is inevitably accompanied by suffering and martyrdom.

The scroll that John consumes has a double effect on him:
            it is sweet in his mouth, yet bitter in his stomach (10.10).
The meaning of this sweetness coupled with bitterness
            becomes clear with John’s realization
            that faithful witness can only be achieved at the expense of suffering.
The two witnesses represent the people of God,
            who follow the path of Jesus through suffering and death (11.7–10)
            to resurrection after three days (11.11).

In many ways the story of the two witnesses
            presents the theology of Revelation in microcosm,
            as John repeatedly revisits these themes of witnessing and suffering.

Following this interlude, the seventh trumpet sounds (11.15).

Just as at the end of the vision of the throne room (5.11–14),
            and after the opening of the seventh seal (8.1),
            there is a heavenly response to the preceding events.

Heaven’s perspective on the earthly judgements is heard
            as loud voices proclaim that:
‘The kingdom of the world has
            become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah’ (11.15).

Christ is seen enthroned as Lord of all (cf. Ps. 2.1–8),
            seated on the heavenly throne as the eternal ruler.

From the perspective of the earth,
            the Emperor may still occupy the throne in Rome,
but from the perspective of heaven,
            Christ is enthroned and the satanic empire is already destroyed.
Once more John’s narrative has reached a point of closure (cf. 5.11–14).

The time of final judgement is at hand,
            the prayers of the saints for freedom have been answered,
and those in the churches are drawn into the heavenly worship
            through the thanksgiving hymn of the twenty-four elders
            which we had as our call to worship (11.16–18).

The call here is clear:
            the people of God are those who must learn
                        to desist from idolatry in all its forms,
            resisting the allure of the satanic empire
                        and holding firm to the truth of the ‘revelation’
                        that John receives and communicates.

The followers of the Lamb, in this way, become those
            who, when seen from heaven’s perspective,
prayerfully participate in the downfall of Babylon
            as they lead the nations of the world
            from slavery under empire to freedom in Christ.

So, the next time we turn to prayer,
            and find ourselves wondering what the point of it all is,
there is encouragement here
            fur us to see the purpose of prayer from Heaven’s perspective,
            rather than from our far more limited earthly point of view.

Our prayers are not bouncing ineffectually off the ceiling,
            achieving nothing and wasting our efforts.
Rather, they are ushering in the kingdom of God,
            one life at a time.
You see, a world in which a prayer to God has been offered,
            is a world in which a prayer to the Emperor has been denied.

And if we can learn to turn our eyes from the lures of the empire in our world,
            with all its seductions an coercions,
then we are also learning to turn our lives from the violence that the empire generates,
            and are bringing into being
            the peaceable kingdom of Christ for which we pray.

It is through prayer that the lies of evil are unmasked,
            and it is through prayer that people are freed
            from their enslavement to forces of demonic destruction.

It is through prayer that the people of God lead the way
            from slavery to ideologies of empire, to lives lived in freedom through Christ.
It is prayer that sustains our faithful witness to a new way of being human,
            and it is prayer that upholds us when we face difficulty and opposition
            for the truths that we are called to speak.

Prayer, from heaven’s perspective,
            changes everything.
And so we pray,
            Your kingdom come, your will be done,
            on earth, as it is in heaven.