And they sang a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and the elders. No one could learn the song except the 144,000 who had been redeemed from the earth. Revelation 14:3 (NIV)
One of the cooler things my local church does is a semi-annual event called Original Works Night (O.W.N.). The idea is rather simple. Creative types are encouraged to bring their original songs, dance, poems, scripts, paintings, photographs and etc. Our church’s auditorium is transformed into a relaxing coffeehouse atmosphere complete with free food and drink. People gather and for a couple of hours to take in the artistic expressions.
O.W.N. happened to be this past Saturday night. While the artists were all over the map in terms of their own personal faith journeys, there were two themes that emerged. First, there those who, upon placing their faith in Jesus and experiencing salvation, felt compelled to write songs to express their gratitude and wonder. Second, like many of the psalms we’ve read together in recent months, there was a lot of creative expression that came out of pain.
Earlier in John’s vision, we encountered angels and creatures who continually utter the same praise over and over and over again. I found it fascinating that in today’s chapter there is a new song brought into heaven’s throne room. As it happens, it is sung only by those 144,000 who had experienced the pain of the great tribulation and were saved from it by the blood of the Lamb.
I am jazzed by being made in the likeness of the Creator of all things. I love to see and hear the creation of others as they express themselves, their thoughts, emotions, and experiences in artistic ways. I love that in a vision of the end times, we find Creator God in heaven’s throne room having His very own Original Works Night.
[The beast] also forced all people, great and small, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hands or on their foreheads, so that they could not buy or sell unless they had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of its name. Revelation 13:16-17 (NIV)
“Do you have any cash?” Wendy regularly asks me as we prepare to go on a trip or out for the evening. I get it. Wendy and I are perhaps the last generation to even think about asking this question. I always laugh inside when she asks. Sometimes I do have cash on hand. Often, I don’t. My silent retort when she asks the question is, “What do I need cash for?” The world is increasingly operating on a virtual currency exchanged via cards, smartphones, and electronic transactions.
In nine years of being together I can only remember one instance of being burned by not having cash on hand. It happened a month or so ago when Wendy and I went to an event in downtown Minneapolis and for that event the parking garage took cash only. I happened not to have cash that night. Wendy certainly had her “I told you so” moment though she was very gracious. The fact remains that it has happened once in nine years which suggests to me the greater truth that hard currency is quickly becoming a thing of the past.
I have long rolled my eyes at the many fanciful theories I’ve heard over the years regarding connections between the visions of Revelation and particular current events. I’ve long since given up on trying to make such conclusive exclamatory connections while choosing to remain alert and discerning about the spiritual implications of what is happening around the world.
This said, I do find it fascinating that John’s end-times vision alludes to a global economy based not on paper or coin currency, but on a “mark” required for monetary exchange. For nearly 2000 years such a thing was ludicrous, yet in my lifetime the possibility of such a thing is not only possible, but some economists say is probable. I’ve seen several news reports discussing such a thing in recent years.
I find it equally important to point out that the very next words John writes are “this calls for wisdom.” So it does. It calls for wisdom to be neither over reactive nor dismissive. I feel no compulsion to build a backyard bomb shelter and fill it with supplies in anticipation of the apocalypse. At the same time, I grow more and more certain that history is the unfolding of a story that God has been authoring since the beginning and will, I believe, bring to prescribed conclusion. I hear Obi-wan Kenobi’s aged voice warning: “We must be cautious.”
Ultimately, no matter what I read in Revelation or see on the news feed, my role does not change. I am to faithfully traverse the journey laid out for me as it is revealed on a step-by-step, day-by-day basis. I am to love God and love my fellow human beings with all my heart, soul, mind and strength.
They triumphed over [the dragon] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death. Revelation 12:11 (NIV)
Over the past several years the television miniseries Band of Brothers has become one of my all time favorites. This morning while reading I was reminded of a character in Band of Brothers, Captain Ronald Speirs, played by Matthew Settle. Captain Speirs becomes notorious for risking his own life and taking outrageous chances in battle. In one of my favorite scenes, there is a night that Speirs finds himself talking to a young soldier who, unlike Speirs, admits to fearfully hiding in a ditch to avoid battle. “The only hope you have,” Speirs tells the young soldier, “is to realize that you’re already dead.”
Along the journey I’ve come to recognize that there are many truths of the Spirit realm that run counter to the physical realm. Captain Speirs actually made a profound statement that points to a spiritual truth. When we consider ourselves truly dead to our own self-centered motivations, desires, words, and actions we find ourselves free to experience a fullness of Life and a courage to move forward that would not otherwise be possible nor seem reasonable. Jesus said that there was no greater love than when someone lays down their life for others. I’ve come to realize that “laying down your life” sometimes means making the ultimate sacrifice like a soldier in batter, but it also means a day-by-day choice to lay down self-centric motivations for the service of others.
In today’s chapter, the loud, heavenly voice proclaims that the ultimate triumph of good over evil was made possible, not by might or power, but by sacrifice: the blood of the Lamb (Jesus) who laid down His life for all, and those followers who did not cling to their lives or shrink from death.
Coincidentally, I have the verse above tattooed on my left shoulder. It serves as a daily reminder to me to, moment-by-moment, live in such a way that I sacrifice myself so that I might be able to pour a greater share of love and life into others. Some days I do better than others, but I’m still pressing on.
The seventh angel sounded his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, which said:
“The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign for ever and ever.” Revelation 11:15 (NIV)
Those who follow along with these chapter-a-day posts will recognize the fact that I’m not delving into the prophetic interpretation and meanings of John’s Revelation. This is a conscious choice. Having studied and taught the book on multiple occasions, I find that a brief blog post on each chapter would never offer enough time and space to adequately address the often complex world of prophetic writing and imagery. In addition, my chapter-a-day posts have always been intentionally devotional in nature. My primary motivation each morning as I read the text is: “What does God have in the chapter for me today?” These posts have never been an in-depth study, but simply a spiritual thought for each day’s journey.
One of the things that has piqued my interest this time through Revelation is the scenes of heavenly worship that John witnessed and recorded. In particular, I find the verses and words of praise and adoration used by the angels, the elders and the creatures fascinating. I have also been pleased to read some of these words and to connect them with songs both ancient and contemporary that are familiar. It’s had me thinking about what I can do with this in my own personal worship.
Today I ran across the verse above and, of course, the familiar sounds of Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus immediately popped into my head. Each year at our high school Winter concert, it is the last piece presented and anyone who wishes to join in can step on stage with the high school choir. There’s always a crowd. It had been a few years since I’d been to the Winter concert, but with Suzanna living with us this year I found myself back on stage with the high school choir this past December. I don’t know if there is something special and powerful in the heavenly words from John’s vision, or if it’s the combination of words and inspired music from Handel’s score, but I can never get through the whole thing without tears.
Reading again John’s vision of God’s throne room these past two weeks, I get the sense that the Hallelujah Chorus is a hint of heaven’s majesty.
So I went to the angel and asked him to give me the little scroll. He said to me, “Take it and eat it. It will turn your stomach sour, but ‘in your mouth it will be as sweet as honey.’I took the little scroll from the angel’s hand and ate it. It tasted as sweet as honey in my mouth, but when I had eaten it, my stomach turned sour. Revelation 10:9-10 (NIV)
As artists, Wendy and I love stories that are honest and well told, even when the honesty includes characters acting and speaking in ways we would find unacceptable for ourselves. Some people are offended when they hear a single profane word uttered in any context, but it typically doesn’t bother us when a truly profane character in a movie swears on the screen. Profane people say a lot of profane things. We usually roll with it without thinking much of it.
Having said this, there have been many times over the years that Wendy and I have felt spiritually soured when watching television, a movie, or when reading a book. For a couple of years we avidly watched a television program that was, and I’m sure still is, brilliantly written and well acted. It was network television, so there wasn’t anything in the weekly program which we found particularly objectionable. However, one night Wendy mentioned to me that she felt a “sourness” in her spirit watching the show. Coincidentally, I had been feeling the same gross feeling over the course of the previous few weeks, but without being sure why, I hadn’t said anything. To this day, I can’t tell you any one thing that was wrong or objectionable about the show, but in our gut we both felt spiritually gross watching it. So, we stopped.
I love the word picture of God asking John to eat the scroll in today’s chapter. The connection between God’s word and food is a recurring theme throughout God’s Message. For example, Jesus said when tempted to satiate his physical hunger that “man was not made for bread alone, but for every word that comes out of God’s mouth.”
A couple of related takeaways this morning:
There is a difference between reading and digesting. It’s one thing to have a small taste of greens, but popping a pea or two is not going to do you much good. You have to consume the green vegetable in larger portions if you want any health benefit. I have found the same to be true with reading God’s Message. For maximum spiritual health benefit, you can’t just have an occasional taste. It should be fully consumed and digested over time.
Transformation doesn’t take place without significant change, and change is often motivated by discomfort. When you get used to eating a healthier, more balanced diet you soon find that unhealthy things have a discomforting affect on your body and its functions. I don’t like the way I feel after eating all of those sweets or fats, and it motivates me to avoid doing it again. Once I changed my spiritual diet to include regular consumption of God’s Message, I found that I started feeling soured towards spiritually unhealthy things. I still can’t tell you what it was about the television program Wendy and I stopped watching, but the sourness in our spirits told us we needed to cut that program out of our entertainment diet. Call it what you want. I just know that when I something is spiritually off, the sour feeling in my soul motivates me to get things back in line.
During those days people will seek death but will not find it; they will long to die, but death will elude them. Revelation 9:6 (NIV)
While I sometimes grieve the negative consequences that come with our rapidly evolving technology age, I also fully appreciate the incredible positives it affords us. Thanks to Facebook, I’ve been given the opportunity in recent weeks to quietly walk alongside some longtime dear friends as they offer palliative care to a mother who is in the homestretch of her journey. I have been touched daily by the lessons they are sharing from the experience on Facebook, and I get to offer prayers of support from afar.
My friends’ experience has brought to mind many memories and has stirred some emotional pools which have stood still for several years. I recall sitting quietly by my grandparent’s beds in the watches of the night. There are others who I had the privilege of standing beside in their final days. Watching and listening as someone expels their last breath puts a lot of things into sudden perspective.
Equally sobering to me are a few whom I knew who were anxious for Death’s visit, but not because of the joy they knew by faith was imminent. Their souls running so empty of Life, their bodies failing and in pain, they could think of little else but to plead for what they deemed would be mercifully quick finish and an end of suffering. Period.
Some mornings as I sit and type my thoughts I have more questions than answers. I have all these thoughts and emotions spinning around in my heart and mind like leaves in the wind, but nothing seems to land as I’d like it to do. This is one of those mornings. I think of my grandparents. I relive long stagnant memories. I remember the sound of aspiration. I think of Death’s inevitable visit for all of us, and the tragedy of longing for it, not because it leads to life, but because it simply ends the suffering. I pray for friends who are also wrestling with their own thoughts and emotions regarding such things, and am thankful that technology allows me to share in their journey.
When he opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour.Revelation 8:1 (NIV)
Silence is loud.
In my work as a Quality Assurance analyst (e.g. “your call may be monitored for quality assurance purposes…”) I’ve learned that a Customer Service Representative has roughly seven seconds of unexplained silence before the customer on the other end of the line begins to get nervous. We live in a world of noise and we are increasingly comfortable with the constancy of sound. So much so that silence gets uncomfortable. In fact, my friend who is a therapist has often talked to me about how silence can be an effective tool for motivating a person to reflect and respond. “I let silence to the heavy lifting,” he tells me.
It was silence that leapt off the page this morning. The first verse of today’s chapter is unique. Whenever heaven is described throughout God’s Message it’s a noisy place. God’s throne room is always described as being filled with sounds of music, prayers, praise, and thunder. Today, we read that that there was dead silence. Not just for seven seconds but for almost a half hour. There’s some seriously heavy spiritual lifting going on.
I like to start my mornings in quiet. It’s not perfectly silent, of course. Even with my hearing problems I can clearly hear traffic and all sorts of morning noises. Nevertheless, before the chaos and noise of the day begins to pollute my senses I like to have a short time of getting quiet and acknowledge God’s presence. I let the silence do the heavy lifting and unearth what I need to address or confess so that I can find a bit of spiritual alignment before things get really crazy.
“Do not harm the land or the sea or the trees until we put a seal on the foreheads of the servants of our God.”Revelation 7:3 (NIV)
I have been watching with interest the trailers for the movie Noah. It will be interesting to see what Hollywood is going to do with the story. If you remember, the story begins with God being fed up with the evil of man and deciding to wash the slate clean with a flood. After this act of divine judgment, God makes a covenant never again to wipeout all living creatures on the earth with a flood.
I have heard many people say that God revealed in the Old Testament and God revealed in the New Testament are different. They describe God in the Old Testament a God of judgment while God in the New Testament as a God of love and grace. After my multiple journeys through the whole of God’s Message, I must respectfully disagree. When I was a child I perceived my parents as largely persons of wrath and judgment, but as I matured I perceived the depths of love and grace that were beneath the wrath. I have come to believe that as God’s story is revealed over time and as civilization has matured, we are able to more fully comprehend the person of God as God revealed Himself through the law, then the prophets, then through the resurrected Jesus and God’s indwelling Holy Spirit.
While God revealed Himself as righteous judge in the Old Testament, He also revealed His grace through the salvation of Noah’s family and through covenants with Noah, Abraham, Israel, and David. Jesus, in His New Testament arrival and ministry, certainly revealed God’s loving heart and desire for all to choose salvation, but He also spoke often of the Day of Judgment, of death, and of hell. We can see in today’s chapter that God near the end of the story is still a God of judgment. Four angels given power to wreak destructive judgment on the earth are present and ready. They are held back, however, by God’s loving desire to seal and protect His servants on Earth.
Both grace and judgment are part of God’s nature. To choose to see one part without the other leads to misperception. Misperception can lead to all sorts of tragic places.
I watched as he opened the sixth seal. There was a great earthquake. The sun turned black like sackclothmade of goat hair, the whole moon turned blood red, and the stars in the sky fell to earth, as figs drop from a fig tree when shaken by a strong wind. The heavens receded like a scroll being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. Revelation 6:12-14 (NIV)
Over the past year or so I have been slowly listening to Professor Corey Olsen’s series of podcast lectures on the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. Over the same period of time, I’ve been reading Tolkien’s letters. For me, one of the most profound things to come out of both the lectures and the letters is a seemingly minor point, which I have come to recognize as having profound implications. Professor Olsen observes that Tolkien was a medievalist, and in the middle ages the common world view was that the world and humanity were slowly getting worse and inevitably heading towards destruction. Tolkien clearly believed that our technological advances were not actually advancing society in a positive way*. You see this played out in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings as the machines of war created by Sauron and Saruman are set against the powers of nature in forms of tree herds, floods of water, and eternal powers hidden in the forests.
The idea that we are moving towards destruction, of course, flies in the face of what I find to be the common world view today. We like to believe that humanity is inherently good constantly getting better. Technology and human advancement is moving us towards a better world in which peoples and nations come to mutual understanding and respect. Famine gives way to food for all. Death gives way to medical miracles. Pestilence gives way to environmental utopia. War gives way to peace as we all embrace the better angels of our nature.
As I look around me, read the headlines from around the globe, and talk to people of diverse opinions, I have come to believe that this seemingly trivial question of which direction the world is heading isn’t really trivial at all. It’s fundamental to the way we perceive and approach life.
Today’s chapter reads like a medievalist’s nightmare. Things are not getting better, they are quickly getting worse on the Earth. The four riders of the apocalypse spread war, death, famine and pestilence across the earth. Believers are persecuted and slaughtered for their faith. And, reading like a number Hollywood disaster movies, stars fall from the sky with ensuing cataclysmic effects of nature, sending people scurrying into the mountains to escape the disaster.
I am a relatively positive person. I try to approach life with a “glass half-full” perspective, look for the goodness in others, and seek to discover the silver lining in tragic circumstances. At the same time, I look back across my lifetime. I study history. I cannot see a fundamental change in human nature. I’ve seen tremendous advances in treating symptomatic human problems, but I’ve also seen that the cures often create their own set of problems. I have not seen major shifts in addressing the underlying problems of human greed, the lust for power, hatred, selfishness, not to mention the senseless evil (the existence of which many choose to ignore) I find always at work under the surface and in the shadows.
Today, I am feeling a bit sobered. I believe that history is, indeed, an epic battle of good and evil. I believe that tragically flawed humanity is forever erecting a tower of Babel and seeking a pinnacle of god-like goodness that it can never, and will never attain. I believe that God and good is at work achieving amazing victories small and large, and I believe that the enemy, evil is at work ever thwarting, marring, and twisting for selfish, chaotic ends. I believe that Life and good will win in the end, but I also believe that today’s chapter stands as a reminder of what we instinctively know in our souls; That which resonates in our greatest epic stories: there is darkness before the dawn.
*From a letter 9 August 1945, Tolkien writes to his son Christopher: “The news today about ‘Atomic bombs’ is so horrifying one is stunned. The utter folly of these lunatic physicists to consent to do such work for war-purposes: calmly plotting the destruction of the world! Such explosives in men’s hands, while their moral and intellectual status is declining, is about as useful as giving out firearms to all inmates of a gaol and then saying that you hope ‘this will ensure peace’. But one good thing may arise out of it, I suppose, if the write-ups are not overheated: Japan ought to cave in. Well we’re in God’s hands. But He does not look kindly on Babel-builders.”