The seven bowls of Godís wrath
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Let us pray. Heavenly Father, you gave this vision to John in order that his and every generation of believers would be both challenged to faithfulness and to persevere in hope. Grant us this blessing today. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Tom Wright, one of the most influential scholars in the evangelical part of the Christian church, tells the story of meeting up with his former New Testament tutor while Tom was working on his doctoral research. The tutor asked Tom how he was doing, and because of the scripture that he was working on at the time, he replied that he was having a hard time with the wrath of God. Showing the sort of sadistic delight I have observed in scholars who have passed that phase of their lives, the tutor smiled at Tom Wright and as he began to walk away, cheerily replied, “Aren’t we all.”
That’s where I begin today. If we think about it even a little, it is hard to read the opening verse of our text, “Go and pour out on the earth the seven bowls of the wrath of God.” But as much as it might be hard to hear these words, and to think about what they mean, it is also true we are living in a world in which evil continues to be present, and I think when faced with that evil there is a question that lurks in all of our hearts—when is God going to turn our world to righteousness? In other words, when is God going to judge the world?
Karl Barth, one of the great theologians of the last century, once advised preachers to approach their task with the Bible in one hand and the latest newspaper in the other. I believe that we are living in a time when it has become increasingly necessary and also increasingly more difficult to analyze what is going on in our world and to name those people and institutions that stand in opposition to the ways of God.
There was a time, perhaps a hundred years ago, when it was easy to find both philosophers and scientists who subscribed to the notion that “day by day we’re getting better in every way.” Such people spoke of inevitable progress, continual advancement. Thomas Edison once said, “What man’s mind can create, man’s character can control.” Would even the most cockeyed optimist subscribe today to that sentiment? I don’t think so.
We in North America are particularly uncomfortable with the alternative. We do want God to finally get the world under his control, but we want it done with a minimal amount of fuss. After all God’s enemies are not evil, they are simply misguided. That is not what the Bible tells us in its last book. I think we are beginning to hear more spiritual voices calling us to a greater commitment to the ways of God.
Pope Francis, a little more than two months ago referred to a 'piecemeal' Third World War, condemning the arms trade and 'plotters of terrorism' sowing death and destruction.
'Humanity needs to weep and this is the time to weep,' Francis said in the homily of a Mass during a visit to Italy's largest war memorial, a large, Fascist-era monument where more than 100,000 soldiers who died in World War One are buried.
'War is madness,' he said in his homily before the massive, sloping granite memorial, made of 22 steps on the side of hill with three crosses at the top.
'Even today, after the second failure of another world war, perhaps one can speak of a third war, one fought piecemeal, with crimes, massacres, destruction,' he said.
Let’s turn our attention then to Revelation 16 containing one of the best-known images of the whole book. These are demonic spirits, performing signs, who go abroad to the kings of the whole world, to assemble them for battle on the great day of God the Almighty. …And they assembled them at the place that in Hebrew is called Harmagedon.
There are all sorts of things that could be said on the basis of our text for today. I felt led to emphasize two of those. If you have your Bible with you today, please turn to the text. (It has likely been too long since I reminded the congregation that if there is anyone here who does not have their own Bible, the church would be delighted to provide you with one. Don’t take one of the pew Bibles; we want those here for next Sunday. But if you need a Bible please see me after worship. And if you are one of those people who want a Bible for your tablet or mobile telephone, let me suggest faithlife.com.)
Here’s the first thing. Look at verse 9, verse 11, and verse 20. Even at this point in the story, God is reaching out to his enemies, but there is no repentance. They continue to curse the name of God. Friends, to state the obvious, it is only God that knows the true state of every human heart. But there are those who through the whole of their lives give no other impression but that they are content to oppose the ways of God at every turn.
C. S. Lewis had some thoughts about this. 'There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, 'Thy will be done' and those to whom God says, in the end, 'THY will be done.' All that are in Hell choose it. Without that self-choice, there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek, find. To those who knock, it is opened.”
God ultimately honours our decisions. “I willingly believe that the damned are, in one sense, successful, rebels to the end; that the doors of Hell are locked on the inside.”
Those who first read or heard John’s description of the vision he saw had no doubts that God had enemies. Living within a particular society has always contained within it a challenge for Christians. As a people we have never gone out of our way to stir the embers of any tension into a full-fledged fire. Paul, in his letter to the Romans, urges Christians to be subject to the governing authorities (Romans 13:1). In the same passage he tells us to give respect and honour to those to whom such are due, and even to pay our taxes. Yet this counsel is always heard within the boundaries set out by Jesus: give Caesar what is due to him, but give God your ultimate loyalty. There’s the rub. The Christians of Asia, the Christians of Ephesus and the six other churches to whom John writes, are being told that their lord and god is Caesar. To make such a demand is to deny the worship that can truly only be offered to God and to his Christ.
Please take a look at verse seven. “Yes, O Lord God, the Almighty, your judgements are true and just!” Here is something for us to be certain about. The judge of all the world will do what is right. We, who are limited at very least by emotion and imperfect knowledge are not the ones to whom judgement is entrusted. The world does not need to worry about the wrath of Bill Norman being poured out but rather the wrath of the God who continues, even as the world winds to its ultimate conclusion, to offer the possibility of repentance to his enemies.
There is something else here—perhaps I’m way off but let me try something with you. So the first angel went and poured his bowl on the earth, and a foul and painful sore came on those who had the mark of the beast and who worshipped its image. The wrath of God is not arbitrary; those who chose to accept the mark of the beast, those who chose to worship what is evil and false, have also chosen another mark. It is as if God says to them, if you will only be cleansed of the mark of evil you will also be healed from the mark of judgement. In verse six, God’s enemies have shed the blood of the saints, so their water turns to blood. If the life of another has no value to you, how can you expect your life to be valued? Again it appears to me that there is something here of consequences following actions. If God’s enemies set themselves against God, there will be consequences. Today, in the Middle East, if you are sowing death and destruction you cannot expect to reap a harvest of peace.
Have a look at verse 12. The sixth angel poured his bowl on the great river Euphrates, and its water was dried up in order to prepare the way for the kings from the east. Here we must make a decision. As we navigate through this book, it seems that around every corner there is a new and somewhat puzzling image. Yet, as we have seen in some places—chapter 1 verse 20 for example—either the image is clear or it is made plain. When this verse refers to the Euphrates River, what does that mean? In this case it means what it says —John sees in his vision that God is going to prepare a way for that dreaded eastern empire, the Parthians, to march on Rome.
This was one of the great fears of Rome. The Euphrates was the unrecognized border between the two empires. Should that river ever be transformed into a dirt path, one significant barrier to a Parthian invasion had been overcome.
Wait. If the Euphrates is not a symbol for something else what about the other place name just a few sentences later? What about Harmagedon? Some of you have already decided I cannot know what I am talking about here because I’m using the wrong word—its Armagedon, isn’t it? In most translations it is, but I’m sticking with the NRSV because in using this variation of the word it points out something quite important. As much as the Euphrates is a definite geographical feature to which anyone can point, no one can really be sure where Harmagedon or Armagedon might be. Most scholars think this word is a combination of two Hebrew words har and megiddon, meaning “mountain of Megiddo. There certainly was an ancient city named Megiddo. It was an important military site during the Old Testament period, but there is no mountain there. In fact the city of Megiddo was in a valley.
Friends, here is the conclusion I have reached. Those of you who have heard me preach more than a few times know how much I love to engage in what I like to call informed speculation. I have concluded that all of the early Christians lived in the shadow of something Jesus said about the Jerusalem Temple just a few days before his death. “Truly I tell you, not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down” (Matthew 24:2). That is what happened when Jerusalem was sacked by the Romans in 70 A.D. Surely the news that what Jesus had said had come true would have circulated throughout the fellowship of those who followed Jesus.
My point is that I don’t think John was telling the members of his churches about a specific battle that is going to happen at a specific space but rather that in the course of history, in the unfolding drama of conflict and persecution, the rise of one empire and the fading away of another, in all of this the purposes of God are being fulfilled in God’s way.
Some of you will remember this—50 years ago when I was a teenager there were preachers who were sure it was going to be the Russian Bear that led the armies of God’s enemies. Then the Soviet Union fell and we discovered that day after day, year after year all those women in the Orthodox church were praying for Communism to fail. Now some think it will be a Chinese army that leads God’s enemies. But there is a church in China and people there are praying. The prediction of this book is not about a battle. The conviction of this book is that in the end the victory of God will be complete.