The following is the text of a sermon I preached at Fallingbrook Presbyterian Church in Scarborough on the first Sunday of Advent. The Scripture readings were Psalm 98 and Revelation 19:1-9.
Advent is my favourite season of the Christian year, but it seems like the observation of the season of Advent is becoming an increasingly counter-cultural activity. While Starbucks has been serving its Christmas blend in its signature Christmas cups for over a month and Swiss Chalet has been offering its festive meal for almost as long, Advent tells us we are still waiting. While the music blaring in malls and on radios announces that it is the most wonderful time of the year, Advent says to us “Not yet.” Submerged in the hustle and bustle of the holiday season, Advent urges us to slow down. Over the din and clamour of the many voices peddling their wares, Advent calls us to silent reflection. As we are bombarded by advertisements, schmaltzy Christmas songs and movies which tell us that all will be well with us if we can just find the right gift or the right romantic partner to spend the holidays with, Advent dares to proclaim, “there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). As one of my favourite preachers has put it, “Advent is an exercise in delayed gratification.”1
The name of the season comes from the Latin word adventus, which means coming. Advent, then, is not simply the lead up to Christmas, but rather it is a season of preparing for the coming of Christ. This advent of Christ takes a threefold form which includes his coming in the flesh as a baby born of the womb of Mary, but also his coming in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his coming to us today in the midst of our daily lives. The first Sunday of Advent has historically been a day on which the church has focused its attention on Christ’s coming in glory at the end of the age to judge the living and the dead.
The earliest Christians looked forward with eager expectation to Christ’s coming in glory. In fact, we know that one of the oldest Christians prayers was “Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus.” That our great-great-great-great-great grandmothers and grandfathers in the faith could pray this prayer, indicates that they understood Christ’s coming again in glory to be profoundly good news. However, I’m not sure this sense of the goodness and importance of Christ coming to judge the world at the end of the age has been preserved in the contemporary church. We Presbyterians don’t really talk about such things and the Christians that do . . . well let’s just say that we’d rather they stop talking about it. The personal return of Christ seems to be either, on the one hand, largely ignored or, on the other, the exclusive domain of eccentric quacks and doomsday prophets. In the mouths of these teachers, Jesus’ promise, “Yes, I am coming soon” (Revelation 22:20), sounds much more like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ominous, “I’ll be back.” What these teachers and preachers fail to recognize is that the one who is coming back is the same one who was crucified. The coming King is the one who forsook the path of vengeance and retribution for the way of the cross.
The central and controlling image of the last book of the Bible, book of Revelation, is the figure of the Lamb who was slain seated upon the throne.2 If we do not read the Revelation through the lens of the Lamb, we will inevitably get Revelation wrong. This becomes apparent when considering how the passage immediately following this morning’s reading has often been interpreted. Beginning in chapter nineteen, verse eleven, we have a description of a rider on a white horse, who is called Faithful and True. This figure, who is clearly Jesus, rides out with the armies of heaven in anticipation of the final showdown with the forces of evil. This passage has sparked much speculation resulting in the graphic depiction of incredible battle scenes. Some have even suggested that at this point Christians will be called upon to take up the sword and slay the enemies of God. Because these readers have lost sight of the Lamb, they have missed some very important details present within the text itself. Verse thirteen tells us that the rider “is dressed in a robe dipped in blood and his name is the Word of God.” At this point a very important question arises, namely, whose blood is the rider’s robe dipped in? There is only one possible answer. The battle has not yet been fought, the blood that the rider’s robe has been dipped in is his own. It is the blood of Calvary. Furthermore, readers often overlook that in Revelation 19 there is not actually any battle-scene.3 The armies of heaven ride out for battle, but all it takes is a single-word from the mouth of the One who is the Word to overcome the enemies of God and bring a new creation into being, just as the first creation was spoken into being. The Protestant Reformer Martin Luther understood this well. The third verse of his wonderful hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” includes the words, “The prince of darkness grim, We tremble not for him—His rage we can endure, For lo, his doom is sure: One little word shall fell him.” The rider on the white horse triumphs over his enemies through the Word, which is the truth of his faithful testimony borne even unto death on the cross. The Faithful and True One is the victor. The Lamb that was slain is seated upon the throne.
Hopefully our detour through the verses immediately following our passage this morning has cleared the ground for a more hopeful and hope-filled reception of the doctrine of Christ’s coming again in glory. However, even when poor readings of the book of Revelation and Terminator-inspired teachings on the second coming have been set aside, I suspect that there is still something within us that shrinks back when we hear talk of Christ coming to judge the living and the dead. Judgement does not sit well with us contemporary Canadians. In fact, I suspect that there may be some of you who have been squirming in your pew from the moment you first sat down, opened your bulletins, and saw the ominous sermon title, “Judgement”! There are few things in our culture that our worse than being labelled as ‘judgemental.’ There is deep irony, though, in these cultural currents. For example, notice that the very labeling of someone as ‘judgemental’ is itself an act of judgement. Furthermore, the advocates of tolerance can be surprisingly intolerant when confronted by those who do not share their agenda. Although ‘judgementalism’ is largely looked upon as a character flaw, contemporary society itself can be incredibly judgemental, as evidenced by the revolving door cast of public figures who are mercilessly tried in the court of public opinion through the media. In spite of these deep ironies at the heart of our contemporary culture, the notion of judgement generally gives us modern Canadians a sense of unease in the pit of our stomachs.
Yet the judgement of God is depicted in Scripture as being profoundly good news. Recall our responsive Psalm for this morning. Psalm 98 depicts all of creation rejoicing. “Let the sea resound, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it. Let the rivers clap their hands, let the mountains sing together for joy; let them sing before the Lord.” Why? The Psalm tells us: “for he comes to judge the earth.” Now it’s important to recognize that judges in the Ancient Near Eastern world functioned somewhat differently than judges do today. While no one looks forward to a date in Judge Judy’s courtroom, judges in ancient Israel were actually looked upon rather positively and were sometimes even referred to as Saviour-type figures. We cannot project upon the judges of ancient Israel our contemporary image of the scowling judge clothed in flowing black robes looking menacingly down upon the plaintiff and defendant as he or she doles out rewards and punishments. Rather, when a problem emerged in the life of the community of ancient Israel, those involved would take it to the judges who were seated at the city gates. Through the exercise of their wise judgement, the judges would restore peace and justice to the community. What was wrong would be made right, what was out of order would be set straight, and the community would be able to carry on productively in its life together. This type of imagery is at play when the Psalmist celebrates the Lord’s coming to “judge the world in righteousness and the peoples with equity.” The judgement of God is good news worth celebrating because it means that God is going to make things right. The last judgement is a sign of God’s refusal to give up on his good creation until it has been liberated from every evil that prevents it from reaching its goal. Because there is a last judgement, we know that evil does not have the last word, but rather that there is no end to love.
Something of this comes across in the image of the smoke from the destruction of Babylon going up forever and ever. The social, economic and political constellation of forces which promote idolatry and injustice—Babylon for short—have been eternally judged, never to rise again. Never again will Babylon dehumanize its inhabitants through its system of commercial exchange built upon the backs of the poor. Never again will Babylon marginalize its neighbours through establishing security at the cost of the bodies of the outsiders piled high at its borders. Never again will Babylon despoil the earth leaving the creation scarred and wounded as it pursues ever-new luxuries and ever-increasing wealth. Never again will Babylon claim the allegiance of men and women that rightfully belongs to the Lord alone.
At the sight of the destruction of Babylon, the great multitude in heaven erupts in jubilant praise. “Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God!” “Hallelujah! The smoke from her goes up forever and ever.” “Hallelujah! For our Lord God Almighty reigns.” Interestingly enough, this is the only passage in the New Testament which makes use of the great Hebrew exclamation of praise, “Hallelujah.”4 I suspect, though, that if you’re like me, you might find this entire scene to be just a little unsettling, if not even somewhat distasteful. When I read this passage I cannot help but think that there is something a little off-putting about the saints celebrating as the great city is consumed in flames. Is not this jubilant celebration a rather vindictive display of gloating? Perhaps it is even in some ways reminiscent of the images that were broadcast of small groups of Palestinians celebrating in the streets as the smoke from the Twin Towers ascended to the heavens? I find myself asking the question, “Why should the people of God sing while Babylon burns?”
The Christians of the early centuries who were fed to the wild beasts, covered in tar and set ablaze, and hacked into pieces on account of their profession of Christ found great hope and strength in the promise that Babylon would one day come under judgement. Reflecting upon how the book of Revelation came alive to those suffering under apartheid in South Africa, the theologian Allan Boesak wrote, “There has hardly been a place where the police and army have not wantonly murdered our children, piling atrocity upon atrocity for the sake of the preservation of apartheid and white privilege. And as they go from funeral to funeral, burying yet another victim of law and order or yet another killed by government-protected death squads, the cry continues to rise to heaven, “How long, Lord?”5 In the American south, the destruction of Babylon became the basis for a song that slaves would sing as they laboured in the cotton fields: “Oh, Babylon’s falling, falling, falling, Babylon’s falling to rise no more, Oh, Babylon’s falling, falling, falling, Babylon’s falling to rise no more.”
This morning we are confronted, or at the very least I am confronted, by the haunting possibility that the scene of the heavenly multitude celebrating Babylon’s destruction may be too difficult for us to fathom, not because its images are impenetrable, but rather because we Christians have grown too comfortable in sharing our bed with Babylon. Babylon is very much the world we live in. When newspaper reports trumpet Toronto as the child-poverty capital of Canada, with one in four children living below the poverty line, what we’re looking at is Babylon. When doctors, engineers, teachers and other highly trained professionals who come to Toronto from all over the world can’t find any work beyond flipping burgers, what we are seeing is evidence of Babylon. When it takes the Twitter hashtag #metoo going viral to bring to light the systemic objectification and harassment that women have faced in our culture, what we’re dealing with is Babylon. When a Christian University, like Trinity Western, has to go to the Supreme Court simply to defend its right to exist as an institution attempting to live according to its professed values, what we’re getting a glimpse of is Babylon. When there are indigenous communities in Canada that don’t have access to potable water, what is being revealed to us is Babylon. Lest you get the wrong idea, I’m not simply equating Canada with Babylon. Revelation tells us that all of the nations of the world are implicated in some way in the idolatrous and immoral system which is Babylon. In the words of chapter eighteen, “all the nations have drunk the maddening wine of her adulteries” (v.5). A simple survey of today’s world news headlines would confirm Revelation’s account.
The pervasive presence of these Babylonian realities should stir up righteous indignation amongst all those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. But perhaps we have been lulled to sleep by the false promises and false comforts of Babylon. Perhaps we are wary of speaking of the judgement of Babylon because we are wealthy beyond the imagination of Christians in almost all other times and places. Perhaps we struggle with the “Hallelujahs” that mark the destruction of Babylon because we have come to worship the security and freedoms provided for us by our country. Maybe we have become too attached to our gadgets and gizmos to ask about the environmental cost of our frenetic Babylonian obsession with the new. Or maybe we are so driven to find a good bargain that it never crosses our mind to ask where the product came from or who made it and under what conditions did they made it. The Church is engaged in the fight of her life, locked in a struggle, as the apostle Paul tells us, “not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12). Yet when the Lord returns will he find the soldiers of Christ alert and on guard or will they be found sound asleep wrapped up in warm Babylonian blankets?
It is for such a people facing such a predicament that the book of Revelation was written. The revelations which John received were not given for Caesar’s benefit or for the other custodians of Empire. Rather, John put the visions he received on paper for the sake of Christian congregations that were sorely tempted to exchange their allegiance to the Lamb for the comforts and culture of Babylon. As one commentator has put, the primary purpose of the visions of judgement in Revelation “is not to instill fear but to provide a wake-up call for those who are sleeping” 6
Like our text this morning, the Season of Advent, is a wake-up call graciously given to the people of God who are perennially tempted to sleep-walk their way through this world. In the face of the coming judgement, Advent provides us with the opportunity to repent of the Babylonian ways and habits which have seduced us and refocus our gaze upon the Lamb that was slain. The candles we light at Advent provide us with the opportunity to see the true nature of the darkness which surrounds us and in the face of this culture of death turn to He who is the Truth and the Life.
For the penitent there is a special promise: “Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb.” This banquet is free of charge, open to all who heed the voice of the Lamb and place their trust in Him. Even the wedding garments are provided for the guests—fine linen, bright and clean, washed in the blood of the lamb. The judgement of Babylon is for the sake of this banquet. God judges in order to save. God says ‘No!’ to enmity, violence, exploitation and everything else that seeks to degrade and dehumanize, for the sake of his eternal ‘Yes!’ to us in Christ. God will bring down Babylon, because he has promised us that “neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39). The judgement of God is for the sake of the joy of communion in the life of love eternally shared between the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit.
Last week, as you celebrated the Lord’s Supper, Reverend Kimball directed your attention to the end of the book of Revelation, where the Lord Jesus proclaims, “Yes, I am coming soon” (22:20). As you came to the Table, you did not receive Turkey with cranberries and all the fixin’s, but rather a piece of bread and a small sip of wine or juice—an Advent-sized appetizer to the feast that is to come. History is heading towards a wedding. So, as the apostle Paul liked to say, “Awake, O sleepers, rise up from the dead, and Christ will shine upon you” (Ephesians 5:14).
- Fleming Rutledge, “Loving the Dreadful Day of Judgment,” A Sermon Preached at Little Trinity Anglican Church, Toronto, November 16, 2008. ↩
- Michael Gorman strongly sounds this note in his Reading Revelation Responsibly: Uncivil Worship and Witness: Following the Lamb into the New Creation (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2011), 138. ↩
- Joseph L. Mangina, Revelation, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2010), 222. ↩
- M. Eugene Boring, Revelation, Interpretation (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1989), 192. ↩
- Quoted in Gorman, Reading Revelation Responsibly, 157. ↩
- Gorman, Reading Revelation Responsibly, 141. ↩