A Sermon Based Upon Revelation 19: 1-9
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
May 21, 2017, Easter Series, 6/7: ‘Jesus Christ Revealed Today’
Immediately after the fall of the Berlin Wall, then German Chancellor Helmut KOHL SAID enthusiastically: “Marx is dead, Jesus lives.”
That statement stirred quite a controversy. While many people were glad that the communistic ideas of Karl Marx were dead, they were not so happy to hear that religious ideas of Jesus Christ were still very much alive. For you see, the ideas and ideals of Jesus don’t seem to make any real difference or be desired in lives of most modern, western peoples. I heard a European, in what is still named a “Christian” country, say that Christianity has had 2,000 years to try to build a better world but it hasn’t worked. Catholics have burn thousands of heretics. Hitler used Christian ideals as an excuse to kill millions. More recently Bosnians used Christianity as an excuse to commit horrible crimes of racial cleansing. That person concluded: “Jesus is not helping us, he’s probably holding us back.
There are many people who still think that religion in general, including Christianity in particular, is simply too dangerous. “Look at what is being done in the name of religion in the world; especially in the name of Islam, they say.” Their recommendation is that even we Christians should try to ‘get beyond’ Jesus. But how do we get ‘beyond Jesus’ when Jesus, in his faith and in his love, was, and still is, way ahead of all of us.
Revelation 19, which has all kinds of powerful symbols, word pictures and images, reminds us that Jesus is not someone we can simply regulate into the past, because Jesus is also our future and destiny. A favorite old gospel song, written in 1939 just before World War II, which became much beloved among Baptists during those difficult years, promised that we will have “Victory In Jesus”. This coming, believed, and hoped-for ‘victory’ takes center stage in today text.
“HALLELUJAH….SALVATION BELONGS TO OUR GOD” (19:1).
Many songs are scattered throughout the book of Revelation. Some have calculated as many as 27 of them. Chapter 19 depicts heaven breaking loose in musical praise, and is particularly marked by four Hallelujahs. Handel’s’ Messiah called this the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’. These Hallelujahs mark the ending of this revelation, but also the beginning of a whole new world. The unanswered questions of the church’s sufferings, fears and prayers are finally given an answer with the arrival of a ‘rider on a white horse’ who is named ‘King of Kings and Lord of Lords’.
With powerful images like these, John reveals to us the long-awaited ‘blessed hope’ of the ‘appearing’ and final ‘victory’ of Jesus Christ. John enshrouds this ‘victory’ with mysterious and highly symbolic language because, as Jesus himself said, no one knows when, how, or even what this ‘appearing’ of Jesus Christ will look like. What we can know is that a final, consummating, and complete victory is now being promised in his revelation of Jesus Christ.
The first ‘hallelujah’ ascribes ‘salvation, glory, and power’ which ‘belongs to our God’. It is no accident that the great multitude do not sing of ‘having salvation’ or ‘getting salvation. This is important because salvation is never something we ‘possess’. Salvation is something that possesses us. Although some like to talk about ‘getting saved’ or needing ‘to get saved’ Salvation is not really something we ‘get’. We can’t earn, achieve or get salvation and put it up like a trophy on a shelf. God’s salvation is never fully complete nor realized until God completes it at consummation of everything. As Scripture implies, only those who ‘endure to the end will be saved’ and we ‘work out’ God’s gift of Salvation ‘with fear and trembling’ right up until the end. This means that salvation is a promise, as it is a process, but it is not something we can hold in our hands and say to ourselves ‘well done’. This something only God can say because salvation is a gift that unfolds as we trust God who alone can save.
We should not see this as a problem, because Salvation is a promise with a future, which nothing else can offer. I recall during my youth when other teenagers made decisions to become Christians, some of them would say something like, “I became a Christian, but I still don’t feel different.” That's a problem that is unique to many Baptists, and others, who have sometimes put a lot of emphasis on emotional, experiential, and personal salvation in a single moment that has to pass. Unfortunately, many have been invited to ‘get saved’, but we have failed to invite them to ‘follow Jesus’ in continual discipleship, service, and the journey to God.
It is important for us all to remember that those who follow Jesus are on a journey and life of faith, rather than looking for memories or having experiences of certain feelings. In other words, you should have feelings and experiences of faith, but feelings follow faith, not the other way around. Thus, faith in Jesus is neither a ‘magic trick’ nor is salvation something we ever get to own or ‘have’. No, “salvation belongs to God’ from the very first day, until the very last. If you stay with God, you have him and you know the salvation that belongs to him. But when we say ‘yes’ to Jesus, the journey begins and must not end until we reach ‘the celestial city’ as John Bunyan described it in Pilgrim’s progress. God is still working His salvation, and not our own versions of it, until the very last day.
Because salvation belongs to our God, who at work in us, we should be encouraged. The very next line, which says that God’s ‘judgments’ are ‘just and true (v. 2) is proven, not in one moment of faith now past, but it is proven as God is believed, trusted, and lived by us, because we live toward hope in God, not away from it. This salvation that belongs to God is a salvation that constantly moves us toward fulfillment and promise that is still coming, just like Jesus is coming. A life, lived in hope, can’t be lived in any other way than forward, onward, toward a goal always in front or ahead of us. Like that old proverbial saying, “It’s not over until the fat lady sings,” the Christian faith sings that it’s not over until salvation all is made complete in Jesus Christ. Jesus is the goal, the destiny, and the hope of more to come, no matter what we must go through in life. This salvation is not yet fully ours, and because we trust in him, and follow him into the the future, we can't lose it, because we don't have it, but we have him. God saves us and has us; not the other way around. Salvation belongs to him! Hallelujah!
HALLELUJAH!...HE HAS AVENGED…THE BLOOD OF HIS SERVANTS (19:4)
Since salvation belongs to God, hope is promised, even in a fallen, dying, world full of sin, evil, corruption, death, and destruction. This hope causes Heaven to break out in song again, as the second and also the third Hallelujahs are sung. They are singing again because the ‘great city’ of evil, nicknamed ‘Babylon’, has fallen (18:2), and finally goes ‘up’ in ‘smoke’ (19:3). It is because the evil city is finally overcome, that heaven cries out: “Amen! Hallelujah! Now, God has fully answered and avenged all the suffering and sin caused by this city.
To this hope of we also can say “Amen, Hallelujah!”, because we still hope, that as all the sins and evils of that world (18:4) were finally judged, the evils of our world will also, one day, someday, finally and fully, be condemned and crushed by God’s truth (18:6; 19:2). As the great ‘Battle hymn of the Republic’ sings “His Truth Is Marching On!” This is the ‘truth’ being celebrated in this second and third “Hallelujah!” now joined by “Amen” or “so be it!”
But here, with all these ‘crushing’ images of death and destruction by the hand of God, what are we ‘peace’ loving, hope-having, faith-believing Christians to make of all these vengeful images of destruction and judgment? In the beginning of this Revelation, Jesus is the ‘slain-lamb’ (5:15) who ‘takes away the sin of the world’ and conquers the world with his ‘word’ of faith, hope and love. But as Revelation unfolds, we learn of the ‘wrath of the lamb’ (6:16) who finally avenges (Rev 6:10, 18:20, 19:2) the blood of his saints (Rev 18:24), by killing all the wicked (19:21). How do we explain this coming, judging, and triumphant, but also vengeful approach at the end? And how do we reconcile this humble, loving, saving Christ of the gospels, finally appearing as the Son who comes as an ‘ironman’ to judge the world? For, after the ‘rider on a white horse’ celebrates the lamb’s supper, he rides off to ‘strike the nations’ with a ‘rod of iron’ so that vultures are called forth to the ‘great banquet of God’ to ‘eat the flesh’ of kings and all people who dare oppose him, or his armies. With this, the great enemies the beast and false prophet are thrown into the lake of fire, while the rest are killed by his sword as vultures gorge themselves on their flesh.
It's certainly not a pretty picture, but we must remember that John’s world was not a very pretty world. Actually, John wants to say that in a world where sin, evil and and wickedness often have the upper hand; threatening the faithful and bringing harm to the innocent, Jesus is not only being revealed as a savior and redeemer, but also will also be revealed as the righteous ruler and the final judge. While the images are harsh, even appearing cruel, they are meant as firm warnings to all who would dare think they can oppose God’s purpose and will. The message here is not primarily that Jesus will come to destroy evil doers, but that the same Jesus of the Bible who came to save, will finally redeem the world from its own self-destructiveness and evil. The judgement that is coming is just and fair, because the darkness of sin will be fully exposed and expunged as truth comes into the light of God’s new day. The corrupt and corrupting Kingdoms of this world are put on notice; only God’s righteous kingdom endures. Every other kingdom that opposes God’s truth will finally fall in ruin, be crumple like dust, and those who ruled them be carried off by vultures. These kingdoms finally fall because only God’s kingdom is still coming. It is a kingdom that endures because it only fully arrives when God’s King appears to rule as “king of kings, and lord of lords’.
We can certainly see the implications of a text like this in the very real world that was 1934 Europe. As evils of Hitler and Nazism were on the rise, it was a group of Christian scholars, led by Karl Barth and other Christians leaders, stood up to warn the evil growing in the German ‘state’ and to challenge any German Christians who might aligned themselves that terrible “Babylon.” Barth wrote: “Try the spirits whether they are of God! ….If you find that we are speaking contrary to Scripture, then do not listen to us! But if you find that we are taking a stand on Scripture… let no fear or temptation keep you from…obedience to the Word of God… For he said, “I will never leave you, nor forsake you.” Therefore "Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barmen_Declaration).
As we all know, neither Germany, nor most German Christians stood with Scripture, but wrongly choose to allow that terrible cancerous growth called ‘Nazism’ to grow, until judgement rained down upon Germany at the close of the second World War, in ways that can only be called ‘apocalyptic’ or the fulfillment of the Word and Will of God. And this is exactly what John was saying about the evils of Rome, and pointing to the downfall of any Kingdom or any ‘nation’ that would dare oppose the ‘Word’ and truth of God. As Revelation reminds us, and reminds our own rulers or leaders, the rider on God’s horse, is called “Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war’ (v. 11) because He is the ‘Word of God’ (v.13) who rules with the ‘wrath of Almighty God’ (v.19).
HALLELUJAH, FOR THE LORD ALMIGHTY REIGNS (19:6).
At the heart of everything John is saying, with his vision of the coming, future ‘rider’ on the ‘white horse’ is that he is ‘called Faithful and True’ because ‘Our Lord Almighty Reigns’. This is that the most triumphant chorus in Revelation, as it is the most triumphant line repeated over and over in Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus”. 345 times in Scripture, just like over and over in Handel’s closing masterpiece, “The Messiah”, the promised coming and appearing of Jesus Christ will be the final proof of the biblical ‘truth’ that, in spite of how things appear, when we too may experience the evils of the world and the darkness that can come to us, still the song of faith must keep singing, all the way to the end, as the King James version, and Handel’s Messiah translate, that ‘The Lord omnipotent reigneth…forever and ever, and ever…Hallelujah! Hallejuah! Amen! What Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus sings, and what Revelation means, is that in all things, in life and in death, God rules supreme over both good and evil. Only God is Almighty, and only God’s truth keeps marching on, forever and ever.
I did not grow up singing this song from Handel’s Messiah, although it was hidden away our old Broadman Hymnal. I was only introduced to in High School, by my Chorus teacher, Mrs Linda Saylor, who taught it to us so we could sing in a Christmas concert at her church, The First Associate Reform Presbyterian Church in Statesville. Even though I loved the music, memorized ever word of it, and was well prepared to sing the ‘bass’ line throughout, I didn’t realize the full meaning and message of the song, until as we sang it, the entire congregation of that church stood up to sing it with us, as if it was their national anthem. As cold chills went all over me, I realized then that this song was right at the heart of what it means to be Christian.
We too join in this “Hallelujah Chorus” because we believe, entrust, and affirm--sometimes even against the powers of this world---that only God’s Word in Jesus Christ is ‘Faithful and True’! Even while on earth, we sing with Heaven “The Lord Almighty, or omnipotent reigneth!” because to sing any other song, with either our lips or with our lives, is mere foolishness and folly. As heaven already knows, and earth must know, only on the robe of God’s rider are written the name, “King of Kings and Lord of Lords!”
Any attempt to go against this truth, will, as they say, ‘eat your lunch’ or as the text says, invite the ‘vultures’ to lunch at your expense. These words are harsh, but true. It reminds me how once the director of the Crowe Family Funeral Home in Rutherfordton gave me his calling card, which said, “If the Crowe don’t get you, the Buzzard will!” It was a very unusual, but also most forthright card, but made its point. Will you acknowledge the Lord who rules the world, with his rule in your own heart and life? You must, for there is no other alternative for having hope or ‘victory’ in this world, than in this one who rules over both this world, and in the world to come. Amen.