A Journey through Revelation. #8 – Pick A Side. Revelation 14
Sermon by Rev. Dr. Rolf D. Svanoe
In 1521, Martin Luther stood before the Emperor and representatives of the Pope. All the powers of church and state were brought to bear on this German Priest. They demanded that he recant his teachings of the Bible, which they saw as a threat to their power. If Luther refused, he would almost certainly face martyrdom. If he gave in to their demands, it would bring an end to the Reformation and show that Luther didn’t really believe what he had written. In an epic showdown, Luther said this: “Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.” Martin Luther in that moment needed to pick a side, and he chose to follow his conscience and to follow Christ. For that he was excommunicated from the church. The Emperor had promised him safe passage back to his home, but after that, anyone could kill Luther without penalty. Luther fully expected to be killed for his faith, but the Prince of the area where he lived decided to protect him. The Reformation continued, and the rest is history.
The Christians in Revelation faced a similar situation to Luther. John spelled it out for them. There are followers of the beast, and there are followers of the Lamb. Christians must pick a side, because they couldn’t do both. Who will you choose to follow? And John wanted to make it easier for Christians to choose sides by showing them the end of the Roman Empire.
I love this fall time of the year. Finally, we’ve had some decent weather so that the farmers could get in the field to harvest their crops. The corn and soybean fields are ripe. Farmers who planted corn seed last spring expect to harvest corn. Farmers who planted soybeans last spring expect to harvest soybeans. It is a principle the Bible is clear about. You reap what you sow. If you sow love and kindness, you will reap love and kindness in return. If you sow hatred and violence, you will reap hatred and violence.
John shows us that in the end time two groups of people are harvested. The first are those follow the Lord. “Blessed are the dead who from now on die in the Lord.’ ‘Yes,’ says the Spirit, ‘they will rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them.’” The second group that is harvested are those who follow the beast. In describing them the harvest images are bloody and gruesome. Blood as high as a horse’s bridle for 200 miles. God’s wrath being poured out on the earth.
How are we to understand these images? Again, we don’t read these images literally. John doesn’t mean what he says. John means what he means. These symbols are meant to have an emotional impact on us. The people reading this for the first time would see the end of the Roman Empire in such vivid terms that they would reject Rome and choose the Lamb.
But there is another way to understand these symbols. John patterns many of these tragedies after the plagues that God sent to Egypt to rescue his people. God’s wrath or God’s anger serves a greater purpose. Just like the Exodus from Egypt, God wants to free his people from persecution and oppression. God’s desire is not to punish but to restore.
Think of God’s wrath like tough love. Have you ever known someone caught up in an addiction? They make terrible choices. Often, they will choose their addiction over a marriage or over family. They can lose everything. You can get them into treatment, and sometimes it will work, but other times they just go back to their addiction. Sometimes the only option is tough love, to let that person suffer the consequences of their choices until life gets so bad they come to their senses. I think of God’s wrath that way, as tough love. And when we cry out to God out of our pain, God comes to our rescue. God’s desire is not to punish, but to restore. God wants to restore all people to himself, and sometimes that requires tough love.
The year was 1861. The Civil War had just started and there had been a couple battles. People began to realize that this war was not going to be over soon and increasing numbers of men were being conscripted to fight in the war. Julia Ward Howe lived in Washington D.C. and witnessed as troops arrived singing their war songs. One evening she woke up early with the words to a song going through her mind. She wrote down the words. The song became one of the most popular during the war. We know it today as the Battle Hymn of the Republic. Some of the words in the song come directly from Revelation 14.
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.
Julia Ward Howe saw directly that America was paying a price for its sin of slavery. It was reaping what it had sown. The price in the lives of men killed and blood spilt was horrific. Maybe not blood as high as a horse’s bridle for 200 miles, but close. The last verse is a direct reference to the end of slavery.
In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me.
As He died to make men holy, let us live to make men free,
While God is marching on.
God’s wrath was poured out on our country in a way we had never seen before. We were addicted to the institution of slavery, an institution built on lies and violence and injustice. The only thing that was going to free us from our addiction was war. Don’t think of it as God punishing us. Our sin of slavery was its own punishment. And God used that punishment to free us from our addiction to slavery.
We are still paying the price for our racism 150 years later. Hate crimes like yesterday’s shooting in Pittsburgh show that we still have a struggle to root out racism in our society. Movements like the #MeToo movement or Black Lives Matter show that we still struggle with inequality and injustice. John reminds us that we must pick a side. We can follow the Lamb, or we can follow the Beast. We can follow Jesus Christ and devote our lives to speaking truth and sharing God’s love with the world. Or we can follow the beast-like elements in our world today that speak lies and promote a culture of violence and hatred. Which will you choose?