Sunday, June 24, 2012

This Week's Sermon: "Michael's Lament"

Revelation 12:7-12

7 Then there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, 8 but they did not prevail, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. 9 So the great dragon was thrown down. The old snake, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world, was thrown down to the earth; and his angels were thrown down with him. 10 Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say, “Now the salvation and power and kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Christ have come. The accuser of our brothers and sisters, who accuses them day and night before our God, has been thrown down. 11 They gained the victory over him on account of the blood of the Lamb and the word of their witness. Love for their own lives didn’t make them afraid to die. 12 Therefore, rejoice, you heavens and you who dwell in them. But oh! The horror for the earth and sea! The devil has come down to you with great rage, for he knows that he only has a short time.” (CEB)

“The Greatest Movie Never Made: The Book of Revelation,” Week Four
            It was one of those stories that began, as many stories that go viral do, in isolation—in the social isolation that comes with being ostracized and bullied.  The 68-year-old grandmother who still worked as a bus monitor felt the abuse pile up from her students—the profanity, the physical threats, and easily the most jarring, the taunts about her eldest son who had committed suicide.  Somehow, the entire ten-minute tirade from this group of teenage boys made it to YouTube, putting on full display not only their viciousness, but this woman’s humiliation.  I could never imagine how much I would want, if I were in her place, to be as the woman who brackets this story in Revelation—the woman in danger from the dragon who is given wings, that I could escape…not even from the dragon but from myself, that nobody, nobody might see me in my humiliation.  But…as it turns out, that is often when Heaven makes its next move.
Today marks the fourth week of our summer sermon series.  After all, summer is the season of blockbuster movies about superheroes or thrilling heists or action-packed military exploits, and at first glance, the Bible wouldn’t seem to stack up well to such epic storytelling.  Jesus preached a lot of turning the other cheek, the rest of the New Testament are a bunch of letters, and the stories of the conquest under Joshua, or of the wars with the Philistines under Saul and David, are far off in the deep recesses of the past, documented vividly in the Old Testament, but still a thousand or so years before Christ.  So, enter the book of Revelation.  After decades of subjugation by Rome, which included the sacking of Jerusalem and the Jewish Temple in the year 70 CE, Saint John writes this final letter of the Bible from his lonely exile on the Greek island of Patmos some roughly twenty years later.  His letter is a vivid, harrowing vision of what the future may hold in store for God’s people, and it has often been misinterpreted by Christians since, often in, frankly, wholly incorrect ways.  I can’t promise you the right answers in this sermon series, but I can promise you a lot of interesting questions to debate during our fellowship time after worship is over! 
The first week was mostly a crash course introduction to how exactly we are meant to read Revelation to begin with—and that is with the humility and knowledge that we are not John himself, and could not begin to understand his mind—and in week two, we began going through his actual vision, and we started in a familiar, heartwarming place: the thought of Heaven itself, with angels gathered to worship around God’s throne.  Then last week, we began to delve into the realm of demons and dragons and wars between Heaven and Hell with the appearance of the iconic four horsemen of the apocalypse, which represented the first great threats in John’s vision.
            This week, the new villain at hand is a familiar one—the dragon, representing Satan, whom Michael casts out of paradise in this famous story of the war between Heaven and Hell in Revelation 12.  It is no accident that we have arrived at this story on week four—the exact middle of our sermon series—because this is also roughly the middle of the book of Revelation, and by all accounts this story represents a significant turning point in the entire book because it depicts the first true defeat that evil is dealt in John’s vision thus far.
            But it is only a partial victory, as is clearly evinced by the heavenly voice that is heard in verses 10-12, proclaiming a victory for Heaven, and salvation, and the power and kingdom of God, but not for those of us stuck on earth!  No, in verse 9, the dragon is thrown not into hell, but into earth, and in verse 12, the heavens get to rejoice, lucky them, but woe to those of us still muddling along in this broken and fragmented world, because now we’re stuck with this thing called evil that we may not know how to resist, whether because we are too afraid to, or because we struggle to define it.  Either way, the result is the same—evil overpowers our own weakness.
            That’s the heart of the voice’s lament in verse 12, though…Heaven knew how to resist evil, but we still do not…or, at least, not all the time.  Or even most of the time.  Yes, we try to say please and thank you.  But if that’s all there is, then we’re members not of the Christian Church, we’re members of the Church of Be Nice and Chew With Your Mouth Closed.  Being able to recognize wrong and to resist it without becoming wrong ourselves, that’s a lot less superficial.  And that’s why, theoretically, the church should still be in business—to teach that!
            But if I am completely honest with all of you, I worry that the church indulges in wrong as well, much as we should not, much as we must not.  It’s easy to demonize other groups of people when we say I’m right, you’re wrong.  It’s easy because it has always been quicker to rally people when you give them a bogeyman to be afraid of, not a Savior to be inspired by.  But when we pastors reach for that, we begin preaching by the power of fear, not the power of faith.
            The paralyzing nature of evil itself, and of the fear it indulges, can be summed up in the name of the devil that John uses in verse 9—Satan.  That name first appears in the opening chapters of the book of Job, where God hands Job over to the power of this same creature, Satan, and in Job, the Hebrew “ha satan” literally means “the adversary,” or “the accuser.”  And so Job, in order that his faith be proved, basically gets hung out to dry by God—God lets The Adversary do whatever to Job, just so long as Job’s life is spared (though, it should be noted, not the lives of Job’s family).  Job’s livelihood is put to a screeching halt—he loses everything because of the nature of evil—and God’s own hands are tied by the wager He made with The Adversary.  It isn’t just that evil is destructive in Job’s case, it is that it is paralyzing as well.
            And I have to admit…I felt like, when reading through this text over…and over…that we had all become Job, that we have all been hung out to dry by God because God’s done His own housecleaning—He’s cast Satan out of Heaven, but then Satan just picks up and moves next door.  It’s like, as a little kid, when your parents tell you to clean your room, you just sweep it all under the bed instead.  Out of sight, out of mind, right?  It makes it feel like Heaven is in denial!
            Except that verse 12 means we know that’s not the case—in that half-verse of lament, Heaven knows exactly what it has sentenced Earth to by sending The Adversary to our backyard.  So what, exactly, is God’s excuse?  My short answer to that question is: we may never know.
            The long answer is that perhaps we are left, then, with the unenviable task of discerning what we believe to be evil, what we believe to be good, and what we believe, in true Goldilocks fashion, to be in the middle in a world full of shades of gray in addition to the black and the white.  But perhaps the better goal is not to identify certain things as good or as evil, but to identify how evil itself is formed, just like how goodness is formed.  And this is the best I’ve got for you:
            Evil exists because, to borrow from the Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard, its roots come from our own refusals to be ourselves—to be good people, to be loving Christians.  When we refuse to be ourselves by reaching for selfishness, we are modeling not the God who made us, but The Adversary, because he too has chosen not to be himself—he has chosen to no longer be the angel God created him as.  We as Christians are called to model the love of Jesus, and when we stop doing that, we indulge that darker side that exists within each of us.  And when enough of us choose to do that, we begin to see things like wars, massacres, evils so widespread, and sins so massive that they could understandably completely obliterate your faith in one another.  And other times, that sort of hurt and wrongdoing happens close to home, yet sometimes, occasionally, with a different end result.
            For there is an epilogue to the story of the bullied bus monitor.  An online campaign was set up to raise funds for her to be able to take a vacation, and it, like the clip of the bullying itself, also went viral.  The original goal was to raise $5,000.  As of Friday afternoon, it had raised over $500,000.  But perhaps more importantly, a number of the teenagers who bullied her have now emotionally, publicly—and in some cases, on national television—apologized to her, and swore never to do something like that again.
            We still know, deep down, the right thing to do…at least more often than not.  May that be enough to keep us following Jesus Christ.  After all, he and The Adversary do have one thing in common—they were both sent from heaven to earth.  And the choice to act like either of them remains ours.  Let us choose wisely.  Let us choose lovingly.  Let us choose to be Christ-like.  By the grace of God, may it be so.  Amen.
Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
June 24, 2012

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