The (S)Word-Wielder

Jesus, coming as a divine warrior to slaughter God’s enemies.

How do we make sense of this vision of judgment in Revelation 19?

Let’s sharpen the question: How can we reconcile this Jesus with the Jesus of Revelation 5, where Jesus the Lion reigns not by slaughtering his enemies but by being the Lamb slain by his enemies? Or the Jesus of Revelation 12, where Jesus the King comes not as invincible and all-conquering but as a vulnerable child?

SeraphOr, to sharpen the question even further: How can we reconcile the Jesus of Revelation 19 with the Jesus of the Gospels? What happened to “Love your enemies” and “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do”? Does God get to the end of human history and say, “Just kidding!”?

Keep these questions in mind. Let yourself feel some inner tension. Allow yourself to be made uncomfortable by this image of Jesus.

But to help make sense of this vision of Jesus the divine warrior, let me give two things: a thought, and a story.

Here’s the thought: think of the power of the spoken word.

A simple word, like “Thanks.” A phrase, like “I’m sorry.” These can be powerful words.

Or something more, a fuller statement of some kind: an invitation, or a pledge, or a confession, or a command, or an assessment, or an entreaty. These can be powerful things in our lives.

Now expand that thought: think of the way in which a single statement—a declaration, a pronouncement, a promise—can cut two ways, the way a single statement can be received in two completely different ways by different people.

A judicial declaration—“You are acquitted of all charges”—can bring relief and happiness to the person so acquitted, but bitterness and anger to an injured person still seeking justice.

A marriage pronouncement—“I now pronounce you husband and wife”—is a cause for great rejoicing for the couple, but might be a cause of deep anguish for a former spouse who had hoped to be reconciled.

A parental promise—“We will go for ice cream after your concert”—will probably bring excitement to the child, but might cause resentment by another (“Why didn’t we go for ice cream after my concert?”).

The power of the spoken word—and the ways in which a single word can cut two ways. Keep that thought planted in your mind as I tell the story.

It’s a familiar story—the story of Jesus. But it’s the story of Jesus through the lens of the spoken word that cuts two ways.

Here’s the story.

In the beginning was the Word, the Word of God, God’s powerful, spoken message. And this word was light and life. This word was love. This word was good news for all creation.

God spoke this word at many times and in various ways through history, including through the prophets of ancient Israel. Isaiah was one of those prophets.

Isaiah assured God’s people that the divine word, God’s powerful, spoken message, would go out into the world and accomplish God’s purposes—like rain falling from the heavens. God’s word of light will bring light. God’s word of life will bring life. God’s word of love will flood the earth with justice and peace.

Isaiah had a name from the one who would bring this “word of God” to the world: he calls him the “Servant.” Here’s how Isaiah puts it—in the Servant’s own words:

The Lord called me before I was born,
while I was in my mother’s womb he named me.
He made my mouth like a sharp sword

The Lord God has given me
the tongue of a teacher,
that I may know how to sustain
the weary with a word
.

And what is this spoken word that cuts like a sword? What is this spoken word that sustains the weary? It is the “good news” of God’s kingdom, God’s reign over all things. Here again is how Isaiah puts it:

How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news,
who announces salvation,
who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.

This word of God, this spoken message of God, sustains the weary. This gospel of God’s kingdom is good news for the oppressed, comfort for the brokenhearted, freedom for all held captive by the dark powers of this world.

Lion-Lamb 2This word of God is a powerful word—but it cuts two ways. The message of good news for the oppressed means judgment on the oppressors. The word of comfort for the brokenhearted is a denunciation of all who break those hearts. The promise of freedom for all held captive is a blunt warning to their captors.

God has spoken this double-edged message at many times and in various ways through history, including through the prophets of ancient Israel, including Isaiah.

But now, finally, in our own day and age, God has spoken this message through Jesus, the dedicated Servant of God. The Word of God, the very message of God from eternity past, was enfleshed among us and lived among us in Jesus of Nazareth.

Think about how Jesus defined his mission in Luke 4:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.

That’s Isaiah again, which Jesus says he is in the business of bringing about.

And this is indeed what Jesus does: Jesus speaks the word of God, the message of God from the beginning of the world, the good news of God’s reign. And this word cuts two ways.

Think of how Jesus’ message is summed up in Mark’s Gospel:

Good news! God has come to reign!

But repent! Repent, for God’s kingdom is here!

Trust in God, for God is bringing justice and peace and life! But this means you must repent of your harmful and destructive ways.

A powerful word that cuts two ways.

Or think about how Luke’s Gospel presents Jesus’ beatitudes:

You who are oppressed by rich landowners,
you who are impoverished by greedy tax-collectors,
you who are dealt death by sword-wielding soldiers—
you are the truly blessed by God, and God will make things right.

But that means woe to you wealthy 1%,
woe to you privileged white males,
woe to you nuke-wielding powers that be—
your time is up, for God will make things right.

Words of comfort, words of healing, words of hope. Yet those very same words: challenging words, disturbing words, words of judgment.

A powerful word that cuts two ways.

Jesus carried no sword. He used the metaphor of the sword in his teaching, but that’s what it is: a metaphor. The one time Peter took him literally about carrying a sword, Jesus ended up rebuking him for actually using it and healed the man whom Peter had injured. No, Jesus was not speaking of literal swords.

Jesus carried no sword. To use Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 10, Jesus did not use the weapons of this world, because he was not waging the war of this world. Rather, he used powerful and persuasive speech, seeking to (as Paul puts it) “destroy arguments and every proud obstacle raised up against the knowledge of God, to take every thought captive to obey Christ.”

Jesus carried no sword. To borrow from Paul again, this time in Ephesians 6, Jesus did not fight against flesh and blood, against any human persons, even his enemies. Rather, he was waging war on the oppressive powers of this world, the rulers who wielded their power for their own gain. He was waging war on (as Paul puts it) “the rulers, the authorities, the cosmic powers of this present darkness, the spiritual forces of evil.”

Jesus carried no sword. Rather, his word was his sword: the eternal message of God, the good news of God’s reign, the word of love, the word that brings light and life.

This word is a sharp sword: “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” Menno Simons echoed this when he declared that “We know of no sword, nor commotion in the kingdom or church of Christ, other than the sharp sword of the Spirit, God’s word.”

This spoken word of God cuts to the heart—and it cuts two ways. The gospel proclaimed and embodied by Jesus comforts the disturbed but disturbs the comfortable. It is blessing for the poor and oppressed but judgment for the wealthy oppressors. It is light for those in darkness and life for those walking in the shadow of death, but it is condemnation for those who dole out darkness and deal in death.

Once we’ve grasped this thought set within the story of Jesus, we can step back into Revelation 19 and make sense of this difficult image of Jesus the divine warrior.

Heaven opens, and out comes Jesus, “Faithful and True,” riding on a white horse to bring “justice.”

He himself is called “the Word of God.” He is himself God’s message, spoken from eternity past, God’s message of light and life, God’s message of love—and so God’s message that condemns all hatred and violence and darkness and death.

And from his mouth comes a sharp sword, by which these enemies are defeated. He speaks God’s message, and the evil powers of this world—beasts of empires, beasts of oppressive systems and unjust structures, followed slavishly by the powers that be, the kings of the earth—all these evil powers are condemned in one fell swoop.

This, then, is Jesus the divine warrior. This, then, is the judgment of God.

Not a sword, but a word: a powerful word, a word that names and condemns evil among us while also bringing justice and peace and flourishing life for all.

Not a sword, but a word: the word of the gospel, the Word which is Jesus himself.

Here’s the final post in this series on Revelation: “The Lord’s Prayer Fulfilled”

This post is adapted from a sermon preached at Morden Mennonite on May 1, 2016. All images are from a mandala of Revelation 4-5 created by Margie Hildebrand. Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.

The Horrors of the Apocalypse

Revelation 6, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: domination, war, economic injustice, and death.

Revelation 8-9, the Seven Trumpets and Three Woes: volcanoes, earthquakes, plagues of insects and disease, and war, always more war.

Revelation 12-13, the Dragon and his Two Beasts: persecution, suffering, martyrdom for those who follow Jesus.

Revelation 15-16, the Seven Bowls of Wrath: the earth, the rivers, the seas, the skies, all touched with degradation and devastation, and death, always more death.

Awful, terrible, horrific things. Things almost too monstrous to mention.

War. Poverty. Drought. Famine. Disease. Climate catastrophes. Natural disasters. Religious persecution. Overwhelming death.

It’s only in the White West where we have had the luxury of being able to imagine these horrors as something still future, some future seven-year tribulation. But tell that to the 40 million who died in ancient China’s Three Kingdoms War, or the tens of millions—half Europe’s population—who succumbed to the Black Death in the Middle Ages, or the millions of indigenous persons swept under the first waves of conquering Europeans, or the millions who perished in the Bengal Famine of 1770, or the tens of thousands of Christians killed for their faith each year around the world.

There is no need to imagine all this as some future tribulation. This has been the human experience throughout our history. It was, it is, and it is to come.

This can be hard to accept on its own, but there’s something else that makes all this even more difficult to accept for us as Christians: Revelation, and indeed several passages in the Bible, describe many of these horrific realities as divine judgment.

But does God, in righteous wrath against sin, actually employ violence and destruction and death to exact judgment, to bring about justice? If so, how do we reconcile that with Jesus’ call to nonviolence, to love our enemies, to forgive seventy times seven times? And if not, how do we make sense of this kind of language in Revelation, or even elsewhere in the Bible?

There are several things in Revelation that suggest that all this is more complex than it first seems, and that notions of God seeking “retributive justice” or using “redemptive violence” are missing the point of Revelation’s language of divine judgment.

Yes, God judges human sin—but not by zapping us with lightning bolts of violence, not by doling out destruction with one hand and death with the other.

Lion-Lamb 2Let’s start with the first major vision of Revelation, Revelation 4-5. This vision sets the stage for everything else that follows in Revelation. It sets the tone for how we should imagine Jesus and God. And there God reigns through Jesus, and Jesus is the Lion of Judah—Israel’s Messiah—who reigns as the Lamb who has been slain.

Jesus does not reign as a tyrant, as a bully, as a cruel and violent despot. Jesus reigns as the one who is willing to die rather than kill, who rejects violence and coercion as the path to justice and peace.

This should sit like a burr in our brain, making us uncomfortable with connecting all these horrific things on earth with God’s reign from heaven.

Then look ahead to one of the last major visions of Revelation, the judgment scene in Revelation 20. There we have another clue that things are not as they seem. There, at the end of God’s judgment of all things, we are told that “Death and Hades” are themselves condemned and eradicated. To put this into Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15, “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”

God does not deal in death; God is out to destroy it.

In short, both the first major vision of Revelation and one of the last visions highlight one crucial fact: violence and injustice and suffering and death are not the way of God, but they are the very enemies of God which God is seeking to eliminate.

So how do we make sense of all the visions in between that seem to say the opposite?

Think of those Four Horsemen of Revelation 6: domination, war, economic injustice, and death. Although these are portrayed as coming at the call of heaven, they are thoroughly human evils, originating in our own human greed and cruelty and reflecting a pattern seen throughout human history.

The same assessment could be made of all the expressions of “God’s wrath” in Revelation. Not just the killing and wars, but even the famines and diseases and degradations of the earth, the sea, and the skies—these are caused by human action, human harm, human sin. These are not “God directly inflicting punishment,” but rather “God giving people up to the consequences of their sinful actions.”

This is exactly how Paul describes “God’s wrath” in Romans 1. Paul says that “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness.” And how is that “wrath of God” revealed? Paul goes on: by God “giving us over” to our sins, to experience the full impact of our own destructive attitudes and actions.

No wonder Revelation repeatedly calls on humans to repent.

Then take a look at the two beasts of Revelation 13. Revelation scholars agree that these beasts do not represent specific human leaders (e.g. Nicolae Carpathia) but rather the Roman empire and its imperial cult. These beasts, in other words, are human structures and systems of power gone wrong.

Our human structures for organizing society—our political structures, our economic systems, our religious structures—these can become inhuman, corrupt and cruel, perpetuating injustice and bringing more death than life. At that point, these “powers that be” become “evil powers.” They become beasts.

These beasts, then, and the diabolical ethos that animates them, are not God’s creation. God does not make them. They are not God’s instruments. God does not use them. They are God’s enemies. In fact, we discover by the end of Revelation that the devil and his beasts, all these evil “powers that be,” face the same fate as “Death and Hades”: they are condemned and eradicated.

Evil is not God’s instrument; it is God’s enemy.

God does not deal in death and destruction. God does not stand behind oppressive governments and unjust economic systems. All these things—all the horrors depicted in Revelation, all the horrors experienced in human history—all these things are the very things God condemns, the very things Jesus came to deliver us from.

This way of understanding Revelation is both comforting and disturbing.

It is comforting to know that God does not use violence and destruction and death at all, even to bring about good. As John 10 says, it is the thief who seeks to steal and kill and destroy, not Jesus—Jesus brings life. If there is anything that brings hurt or harm, damage or devastation or death, that thing is decidedly not-God.

SeraphAnd this means there is more than meets the eye in Revelation. All those depictions of God’s judgment being a sort of violent vengeance, a kind of retribution, cannot mean what we think they mean at first glance. God is out to eliminate human sin, evil powers, even death itself—but not human persons. As Ephesians 6 puts it, “our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness.”

Yet in another way, all this is very disturbing. For it means that we are our own worst enemy. Our selfishness, our self-indulgence, our unbridled aggression, our prejudice, our capacity for cruelty, our political oppression, our corporate greed—this is what lies behind so much of the violence and death our world experiences, the degradation and devastation even of the earth itself.

This is the judgment of God. This is God’s assessment of the human predicament.

Hear, then, what the Spirit is saying to us. Hear the call of God for us to repent, to “come out of Babylon and not take part in her sins,” to resist the lure of our world’s “powers that be” gone wrong, to say a firm “No!” to the corruption and injustice and oppression of human structures of power gone bad. Hear the call of Jesus the Lamb to follow him in his cross-shaped footsteps, his footsteps of selfless self-giving for the good of the other, for the good of all, even in the face of death.

In this is the salvation of God. This is the path to the kingdom of God, God’s reign of justice and peace and flourishing life.

Here’s the next post in this series on Revelation: “The (S)Word-Wielder”

This post is adapted from a sermon preached at Morden Mennonite on April 17, 2016. The first image is a painting by Viktor Vasnetsov. All other images are from a mandala of Revelation 4-5 created by Margie Hildebrand. Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.

Refugee Jesus

Let me paint a picture for you.

A family is fleeing for their lives: a husband and wife, with a child.

They are Middle Eastern: olive-skinned and brown-eyed, the man with thick, dark, curly hair and a finely trimmed beard, the woman with a shawl over her head, carrying the young child in her arms.

They stop to rest. They fled as soon as they heard the news—soldiers coming, coming to kill—and they’ve been on the move for 24 hours. Twenty-four hours through hills and desert, along a road by the sea, all their worldly possessions on their backs, or in their arms. They need to rest.

They stop at the crook of a stream, away from the traffic of the main road. They should be safe now, but one can never be too sure. They settle in for a restless night, snatches of sleep amidst dreams of terror.

The man keeps watch, one eye back on the road, the other on his wife and child. He feels all the things you would expect of any man: protectiveness, pride, worry, struggling to be strong for them.

Tomorrow will be a better day. Tomorrow has to be a better day.

The picture is one that has been seen all too often over the years. Too many years, but even more so in recent years. A refugee family, fleeing violence and terror, traumatized by the past, trying to look to the future.

We’ve heard the numbers. More than 60 million people worldwide forced to flee their homes because of war, persecution, or natural disaster. More than 10 million in Syria alone, of whom 4 million have been forced to leave the country. More than half of that 4 million are children. The worst refugee crisis in 70 years, since World War II.

We’ve also heard the stories. Whole cities, utterly destroyed. Mosques, churches, hospitals, burning. Boats capsizing, too many passengers, drowning. A boy washing up on a Mediterranean beach.

And we’ve been reminded of the stories from our own past. Our parents, or our grandparents, or our great-grandparents, themselves refugees fleeing war and violence for the safe haven of Canada.

So this picture—a refugee family, fleeing violence and terror, traumatized by the past, trying to look to the future—is an all too common one in our world.

But that picture I painted for you is actually of a particular refugee family, from 2,000 years ago. The picture I painted is of Joseph, and Mary, and the child Jesus, fleeing the violence and terror of Herod’s jealous anger, fleeing south to Egypt, fleeing as refugees.

The story is told in Matthew’s Gospel. It’s part of Matthew’s version of the Christmas story, but it’s not one we typically highlight in our church nativity plays. It’s much more comforting and cozy to end with the Wise Men kneeling before the baby Jesus tucked away in the manger. Herod’s slaughter of the infants, the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt as refugees—that’s not typical children’s story material.

And yet there it is, plain as the nose on Rudolph’s face: Jesus was a refugee, one of hundreds of thousands of Middle Eastern refugees over the centuries.

Many of you attend churches that celebrate Advent in some way: perhaps lighting Advent candles, maybe focusing on Advent themes, in the four weeks leading up to Christmas. In Advent, Christians look in two directions: we look back to the first coming of the Messiah, the baby sleeping in a manger; and we look forward to the second coming of the Messiah, the king sitting on his throne.

And so it’s appropriate for us not just to look back to the often untold Christmas picture of Jesus the refugee, but also to look forward to the often ignored Second Coming picture of Jesus the judge.

The picture is also painted for us in Matthew’s Gospel.

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.

Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’

Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’

And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me.’

Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’

Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’

Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.

It’s a sobering picture. A judge. A judgment. A reward. A punishment.

And most sobering of all is what the judge looks for in that last day. Have you given food to the hungry? Have you given drink to the thirsty? Have you given clothing to the naked? Have you welcomed the stranger?

And most surprising of all is that the judge—Jesus—puts his own face on the faceless hungry and thirsty, the faceless naked, the faceless stranger. What we do for these, we do for Jesus himself.

Lentz - Christ of MaryknollJesus as “the least of these.” Jesus hungry, thirsty, naked. Jesus as a stranger, an outsider, a foreigner, in desperate need.

It’s hard not to wonder if Matthew’s Jesus was thinking back to his own experience, back to his own experience as a refugee child. I wonder, who welcomed him in with Joseph and Mary? Who fed him, and clothed him, when he was one of “the least of these”?

This Advent and Christmas season, I invite you to consider Jesus the refugee. I invite you to consider the refugee as Jesus. I invite you to resist fear and step out in faith, to step out in compassion for those around the world who are “the least of these,” the stranger waiting to be welcomed.

This post is adapted from a talk I gave this morning at the Morden Men’s Prayer BreakfastCross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.