A Journey through Revelation. #10 – Pictures of the End. Revelation 19-20.
Sermon by Rev. Dr. Rolf Svanoe
It was exactly 100 years ago today that World War One ended. On November 11, 1918 an armistice was signed bringing an end to the hostilities between the Allies and Germany. World War One was described as the “war to end all wars.” An estimated nine million soldiers and seven million civilians died as a direct result of the war. (That would be like the entire population of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, North and South Dakota combined.) The war also contributed to the 1918 influenza epidemic, which contributed to deaths of between 50-100 million people worldwide. Can you imagine what that must have been like, the scale of the devastation and death worldwide? For our ancestors living through those events, it must have seemed like the end of the world. I wonder if they thought they were living in end-times? Did they use words like apocalyptic or Armageddon to describe their world? Did they think that Jesus return was imminent?
In the Fall of 2011, I had the opportunity to tour Israel. One of the places we visited was Tel Megiddo. It is a National Park in Israel today. Lots of tourists visit this place. It is the site of many famous battles in the ancient world. Megiddo is basically a hill that was strategically located at the crossroads of two ancient highways. King Solomon had a fortress built here with stables for hundreds of horses. But Megiddo is most famous as the site described in the book of Revelation for a final battle between the forces of good and evil. Another word for a hill is Har. Harmegiddo or Armageddon. We were there in November and walked up the hill to the top to see the ruins. It was an impressive view of the surrounding valley. But as we were there, a most unusual thing happened. A storm cloud moved in and it started to rain. It was a brief rain, just five minutes. Our tour guide said it almost never rains in November. But as we looked out over the valley, a rainbow appeared stretching from end to end. I thought of God’s promise to Noah that the rainbow would be a sign that God would never destroy the earth again. How ironic to see a rainbow in the place where the end of the world is supposed to happen- Armageddon. Maybe Armageddon isn’t the end of the world after all? Maybe the prophet John wants us to see something else in this symbol?
I’ve said it before. When we read the book of Revelation it’s important to remember that the prophet John doesn’t mean what he says; he means what he means. He doesn’t want us to read this literally. Armageddon isn’t a place you can point to on a map. It is a symbol of the ongoing struggle between good and evil. And it is a symbol that someday God is going to defeat evil.
That is a word of hope to all who yearn for peace. It feels overwhelming to hear almost daily of yet another mass shooting. In 2018 so far, we have had 307 mass shootings in 311 days. When will it end? We grow tired and weary of working for peace and justice in our world. We think that we have made great strides in our country on equality. And then a shooting happens like last week in Pittsburgh happens and we see an increase in anti-Semitism. the ongoing struggle to end racism in our country, these are just a few of the things that discourage us and make us wonder if it will ever end. The symbol of Armageddon is meant to give us hope that one day, God will indeed bring an end to evil. Mourning and crying and pain will be no more and God will wipe every tear from our eyes.
Armageddon is just one of many symbols that John shows us near the end of his book. It’s like a picture gallery, and each picture has a message to bring us. The rider on the white horse is Jesus coming with his army and a sword coming from his mouth. Again, the sword is a symbol of the word of God, God’s truth that sets us free. Jesus’ army is unlike any other. The only weapons are the word of God. We don’t fight this battle with guns and bullets. We fight it with God’s word, with truth and love and forgiveness and the non-violent stand against injustice.
There is another picture John gives us, and that is of the millennium, a thousand-year period of peace. And at the end of that period Satan will be released again for a final battle and his final destruction. Again, we need to ask what John is trying to tell us with this symbol. We thought that World War One was the war to end all wars. It was a naïve view of human nature. We know that just 22 years later World War Two started. And following that the Korean War, then the Vietnam War, and now the Afghanistan war. Evil keeps popping up its head. After a period of peace, after the world catches its breath from the last war, another war breaks out. Perhaps John wants us to know that instead of this endless cycle of violence and war, there will come a time when God will bring an end to war and killing and hatred.
There is one more picture that John gives us, and we need to talk about it. Here in Minnesota, the land of 10,000 lakes, we all dream of having a lake cabin. But John talks about a lake that no one wants to visit- the Lake of Fire. It is a place of judgment and punishment and one of the most horrifying images in the whole of the Bible. Western art and literature is filled with depictions of the lake of fire and those being burned in it. Preachers have found the lake of fire to be a powerful tool to manipulate people with fear. Hellfire and Brimstone!
I don’t ever remember preaching a sermon about hell, but one of the most interesting Bible studies I have ever led was a Bible study on Hell. I called it, “Go to Hell with Pastor Rolf.” You see, when we talk about Hell, we are really talking about God and the kind of God we worship. If Hell is a place of eternal torment and torture, how do we reconcile that with a God of love who has revealed himself in Jesus’ death and resurrection? So again, when we talk about Hell and the Lake of Fire, we need to remember to interpret this symbol the same way we interpret the other symbols John gives us. The Lake of Fire is described as the place of second death. It is the ultimate destination of evil. If the symbol of the millennium reminds us that evil can resurrect its ugly head at any time, the lake of fire is there to reassure us that evil will ultimately be destroyed, never to come back again.
It’s interesting that in our Apostle’s Creed, our ancient confession of faith, it doesn’t talk about Hell. Jesus descends to the dead. It was a way of saying that he really died and wasn’t resuscitated. It does, however, tell us that Jesus will come again “to judge the living and the dead.” There will be a judgment, that is for sure. There will be a price to pay. But that price has been paid for us by Jesus on the cross. The good news we proclaim is that our sins are forgiven.
There is evil in the world. But it’s not just out there. The axis of evil runs straight through our hearts. I know it does through mine. I am profoundly aware of my sins and shortcomings. I used to wonder that when I arrived in heaven how long it would take before I messed up and did something wrong. Then what would happen? Would I get kicked out of heaven? Would I get a divine “time-out” to suffer for a while before I could get back in?
I want to tell you today that there is good news in the Lake of Fire. The evil in the world, including the evil that lurks in our own hearts, will all be burned up in the lake of fire. God’s purpose in the world is not to punish sin. Sin is its own punishment. God’s purpose is to rescue us from sin. God’s purpose is to free us from sin’s grip on our lives and to restore our relationship with God. That happens in the Lake of Fire. It is a fire that refines and purifies.
These can be frightening symbols from the book of Revelation. But when we understand how John uses them, we can find comfort and hope. If you are feeling tired and weary of this old world, if you are tempted to give up, just remember that God has already won a victory in Jesus’ death and resurrection. And one day that victory will be made complete when God makes all things new.
A Journey through Revelation. #10 – Pictures of the End. Revelation 19-20.