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Let us pray. The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him! Amen.
There can be no doubt that in the past two generations, fewer and fewer Canadians are making worship at their local parish or church of their choice a priority. A long litany of reasons is offered for this decline in worship attendance. For Roman Catholics one factor has to be people who are less inclined to do what the church tells them to do; the church may say that Sunday Mass is obligatory, but parishoners are not inclined to obey.
On the other hand there is the theory that many churches downplayed the obligations that were part of membership, leaving their members to conclude that if belonging to a church wasn’t that important then why would anyone bother supporting their church.
I wonder if there is another factor involved. I am increasingly aware of the number of times that I can begin a sentence with, I am old enough to remember when… As depressing as that is, here’s one more: I am old enough to remember when wide-open Sunday shopping came to the Greater Toronto Area. When shopping on the first day of the week was introduced supermarkets didn’t open until noon. But it wasn’t long until the opening time on Sunday was the same as any other day.
Not long after this happened I was in The Garden Basket in Markham, a store, by the way, which traces its roots to The Sunkist Market that was once on the Danforth at Carlaw. I asked the cashier about the popularity of Sunday shopping. “We are now as busy on Sunday as we used to be on Saturday.” This is less than a scientific survey but other conversations particularly with families indicated that Saturday had become the family event day and Sunday was errand day, including shopping. In other words on the weekend time is a precious commodity. I think that many Canadians have decided that worship is a waste of their weekend time.
Don’t you wonder about that too? I think our first-century sisters and brothers in the church might have wondered if anything was being accomplished when they came together on the first day of the week. Their beloved pastor had been exiled to Patmos. Pressure was increasing to offer sacrifices to the emperor, claiming him as Lord instead of Jesus. Did they, do we waste our time when we gather to sing and pray and read the word of God on the first day of the week? John says, “Let me tell you what I saw in heaven.”
The book of Revelation is full of images and symbols. It is also full of allusions to Temple worship as described in the Old Testament. I know how ridiculous this next phrase is going to sound—I don’t know if God has a nose. What I do know is that God’s people were told that one aspect of worship was the pleasing odour of sacrifice that travelled heavenward.
We read: Another angel with a golden censer came and stood at the altar; he was given a great quantity of incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar that is before the throne. And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel. Some scholars say this is what the silence is about. The idea there is to reinforce that God pays attention to the prayers of his people. There is silence in heaven because heaven provides that which accompanies our prayers to the throne of God.
I know to some of you this will sound either self-serving or preposterous or both, but one of the things that concerns me about so much worship in the North American Protestant churches is that no one can say it was a waste of time because at least they were entertained. Someone once told Will Willimon that the worship style at Duke Chapel was strange to non-Christians. Willimon thought this was a good thing because being a Christian ought to be at least a little strange to the world that lives at odds with God. I want you going home today thinking through what was said and done, wondering about it, questioning its worth, not just saying, “Oh well, if nothing else, it was entertaining.”
The prayers of God’s people ascend to heaven; then fire from the altar is thrown to the earth—and there were peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake. Again what I think we are given here are symbols and images; these are all things that are frightening and these are signs that point to the judgement of God being brought upon the earth. One thing that must be clear to us if we are to understand this part of Revelation: God’s people have been praying for God to vindicate their faith and judge their enemies. This is now going to happen; this is what is revealed to John in his vision.
The first trumpet sounds. If you have your Bible open, take a look at the first part of our text. One of the things to understand as we look at this section of Revelation is the role of the trumpet. They were not so much musical instruments as they are in our world as they were attention-getting devices. In a military setting a trumpet was used to sound an alarm, to gather the troops, terrify the enemy and announce victory. They were used also as part of religious ceremonies. In the Jerusalem Temple, trumpets sounded daily to announce the opening of the temple gates and the time of the morning and evening sacrifices. In Jewish thought the trumpet was also associated with the end of history. Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming, it is near (Joel 2:1).
Mentioning the trumpet then gets the first readers of these words thinking about God wrapping up the story of this world and bringing about that world where righteousness and justice will reign. As you hear the sound of the first four trumpets, is there anything that comes to mind? Listen to the details—
- hail and fire
- the water turns to blood
- the water is poisoned
- both the sun and moon are darkened
It’s not an exact parallel but the images are meant to remind us of what God does in Egypt to punish Pharaoh and rescue God’s people from slavery and persecution.
What’s the message here? I think the first thing John and his readers would have thought was something like this: it was within the unfolding events of history that God freed his people from the tyranny of Egypt. It will also be within this time of the world’s story that God will free us from the persecution of Rome.
However, there is something more. The second angel blew his trumpet, and something like a great mountain, burning with fire was thrown into the sea. Where are the historians in the congregation this morning? The Revelation was written around the year 90. Anyone remember what happened in AD 79? That’s right, Mount Vesuvius erupted, wiping out the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. The explosive force of the volcano shot flames and ashes into the sky—something like a great mountain, burning with fire was thrown into the sea. John is taking a familiar image and using it for his purposes.
When the fifth trumpet sounds a plague of locusts is released on the earth. Here is another one of the places in this book where we need to make a decision. Did John use an image that would be readily understood by the people in his churches or is this a prediction for the 20th century?
Let me give you an example of what I’m talking about. My family has a name that they use to describe the character that I take on when I am cooking for one of those large family events like Thanksgiving or Christmas—I am “the kitchen Nazi.” Do I need to explain that? Not to anyone who watched the show Seinfeld. One of the best-known episodes featured the story of a temperamental chef who sold nothing but soup at his restaurant and was called “the soup Nazi.” But for those of you who watched Seinfeld that explanation was totally unnecessary—as soon as I said “kitchen Nazi” you had an image in your mind of what an insufferable prima donna I must be in the kitchen.
As soon as John uses the term locust, his first hearers have an image in mind—that of the sky being darkened by swarms of these insects that could easily strip a field of its crops. That’s the familiar image, which I think would be terrifying as it is. But it is as if John says the judgement of God is more terrifying still—it is as if super locusts in battle dress have been released upon the earth.
Here’s the decision that I mentioned: does John use an image that would be understood by his readers or is John given a glimpse of life 20 centuries in the future, of armoured attack helicopters that swarm like locusts in the time of God’s judgement?
I think John’s readers would have thought John was taking a familiar image and making it more striking. Part of the reason I think that is simple—there is more to this image but it has more to do with the first century than the twenty-first. Let me explain what I mean. Take a look at chapter 9 verse 11. They have as king over them (the locusts) the angel of the bottomless pit; his name in Hebrew is Abaddon, and in Greek he is called Apollyon.
Some of you will know the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek as early as the late 2nd century BC. It was called the Septuagint, a name which referred to the 70 Jewish scholars responsible. Psalm 88:11 reads like this: Is your steadfast love declared in the grave, or your faithfulness in Abaddon? You would think that in the Septuagint the Greek word used to translate Abaddon would be Apollyon; that’s the word John uses in Revelation. But it isn’t; John uses a variation. It appears to many scholars that John purposely uses a name similar to Apollo, the ancient Greek god whose name was often linked in ancient writings with the word meaning destruction.
There’s more: the worship of Apollo was widespread in this part of the Roman world; one of the symbols of the god Apollo was…you guessed it, the locust; the Roman emperor Domitian liked to claim that he was the living embodiment of the god…exactly, Apollo.
Do you hear what John is telling his readers? Those who refuse to live in obedience to God are bringing judgement upon themselves, because the emperor, the one who claimed to be the incarnation of Apollo, the one who prided himself on the peace and good government provided by Rome, this one was in reality the king of evil, the leader of destruction.
There is so much more here, but we need to finish. Chapter 9 of Revelation ends by saying that those who were still outside the will and purposes of God refused even yet to repent. There is the trumpet call that we need to hear. The desire of God is always for those who are not serving his kingdom to repent of the ways of destruction, despair and death and to find life through the grace of God known in Jesus. Ever and always is the call, Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.