Ezekiel 36:25-26; Revelation 19:1-21
Prayer for Illumination
Lord God, help us turn our hearts to you and hear what you will speak, for you speak peace to your people through Christ, our Lord. Amen.
25 I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 26 A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.
After this I heard what seemed to be the loud voice of a great multitude in heaven, saying,
“Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power to our God, 2 for his judgments are true and just; he has judged the great whore who corrupted the earth with her fornication, and he has avenged on her the blood of his servants.”[a]
3 Once more they said,
“Hallelujah! The smoke goes up from her forever and ever.”
4 And the twenty-four elders and the four living creatures fell down and worshiped God who is seated on the throne, saying,
5 And from the throne came a voice saying,
“Praise our God, all you his servants,[b] and all who fear him, small and great.”
6 Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the sound of many waters and like the sound of mighty thunderpeals, crying out,
“Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns. 7 Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready; 8 to her it has been granted to be clothed with fine linen, bright and pure”—
for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.
9 And the angel said[c] to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” And he said to me, “These are true words of God.” 10 Then I fell down at his feet to worship him, but he said to me, “You must not do that! I am a fellow servant[d] with you and your comrades[e] who hold the testimony of Jesus.[f] Worship God! For the testimony of Jesus[g] is the spirit of prophecy.”
11 Then I saw heaven opened, and there was a white horse! Its rider is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. 12 His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems; and he has a name inscribed that no one knows but himself. 13 He is clothed in a robe dipped in[h] blood, and his name is called The Word of God. 14 And the armies of heaven, wearing fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. 15 From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule[i] them with a rod of iron; he will tread the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. 16 On his robe and on his thigh he has a name inscribed, “King of kings and Lord of lords.”
17 Then I saw an angel standing in the sun, and with a loud voice he called to all the birds that fly in midheaven, “Come, gather for the great supper of God, 18 to eat the flesh of kings, the flesh of captains, the flesh of the mighty, the flesh of horses and their riders—flesh of all, both free and slave, both small and great.” 19 Then I saw the beast and the kings of the earth with their armies gathered to make war against the rider on the horse and against his army. 20 And the beast was captured, and with it the false prophet who had performed in its presence the signs by which he deceived those who had received the mark of the beast and those who worshiped its image. These two were thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulfur. 21 And the rest were killed by the sword of the rider on the horse, the sword that came from his mouth; and all the birds were gorged with their flesh.
Note: This sermon series is a collaborative effort; it is the work of the Rev. Alan Olson (Pastor, First Presbyterian Church, Freehold, NJ), the Rev. Charissa Howe (Pastor, Emsworth UP Church and St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church), and the Rev. Rebecca DePoe (Pastor, Glenshaw Valley Presbyterian Church and Mt. Nebo United Presbyterian Church).
Sermon: Heeding the Signs
Good morning! And to the saints at Emsworth, Glenshaw Valley, Mt. Nebo, and St. Andrew’s, a very special good morning. There are a couple things I need to tell you folks—things that my congregation already knows, but are also important to my message this morning.
For the last couple weeks, I’ve been using our reading from the prophet Ezekiel as our assurance of pardon. The words “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you,” really ring true for me. About two weeks ago, I went into the hospital for a heart catheterization.
My cardiologist found a 95% blockage in one of my coronary arteries and a blockage of 60-70% in another artery. At that point, the cardiologist turned the procedure over to a vascular specialist, who then placed two stents in the artery with the 95% blockage. I’ll go back in a couple weeks for the other procedure.
This whole process has been rather frightening. It started with a walk, back in June. During the walk, I felt like I had an elastic band wrapped around my chest. But I wouldn’t call it chest pain. I wasn’t short of breath. I didn’t feel pain in my left arm, or anything. Still, I went to the ER at my local hospital. The doctor there determined that I didn’t have a heart attack, but he called for more testing.
“How bad could it be?” I thought. I only felt the symptoms one time. And I didn’t feel that bad. Of course, I only learned that my artery was 95% blocked after I got the stents. It was bad. Very bad. I didn’t have a heart attack, but I could have. It was a close call. It’s actually a little more frightening in hindsight.
I knew I needed to make lifestyle changes before all of this happened. I’m overweight. I eat too much and I exercise too little. All of that got worse during the quarantine. And I have a family history of heart disease: my dad died from a heart attack at the age of 69. His father died from cirrhosis and heart disease at the age of 63. My other grandfather died from a heart attack—his second—at the age of 51.
I’m 48. I eat too much and I exercise too little.
All of that got worse during the quarantine.
I knew I needed to change, but I thought I could wait a little longer.
I made excuses: I’ll do this when my gym opens back up. I’ll start eating healthier after the quarantine—I need comfort food to get through this. Lots of comfort food. Too much comfort food.
I knew I needed to change, but I didn’t want to.
The book of Revelation is serious—serious as a heart attack. Nobody wants to change and we all dig in our heels when someone else tells us, “you need to change!” That’s why Revelation confronts us with crazy violent images. That’s why it offers broad satire, like the whore of Babylon. John of Patmos is trying to stir the people of the seven congregations—and really, all Christians—out of their complacency. He is shouting: Wake up! Repent!
This is a message we all need to hear. We are all complacent. We are all resistant to change. We want other people to change, but not us. We want new, young families to wander into our churches, where they will be so impressed by how nice we are, that they will want to worship with us. This is what we want, but we have no idea if it’s what they need. And we don’t want to change our own behavior in the process.
I saw a meme on Facebook the other day that kind of sums this up. It said something like: “How to frighten the new generation: put them in a room with a rotary phone, an analog watch, and a TV with no remote. Then write the directions for how to use these items in cursive.”
I’ll admit it: I laughed.
But then I thought about it.
Many of us are slow to adapt. Many of us refuse to adopt the new modes of communication, refuse to use the new platforms for communication; we resist the chance to learn from young people. Instead, we mock them for not understanding our outdated modes of communication.
And yes, I do think that the human voice is better than a text message, and that relationships are best when we engage each other face-to-face. But we have to be the ones to build those relationships. We have to learn to communicate across the generations and meet people where they are. We can only be in relationship with people if we are able to communicate with them.
As I said a couple weeks ago, the story of Revelation is the story of God’s love for humanity as told by the Marvel Comics Universe. It’s The Avengers for the people of God. It’s a grand opera, filled with song and spectacle and great special effects, all designed to get us to pay attention, repent, and return to a right relationship with God.
Our reading today sketches out a vision of what that looks like. It shows the destruction of the enemies of the faithful: the whore of Babylon, the beast, and all the false prophets. Chapter 19 of Revelation shows the vindication of all those who kept faith, even if it cost their lives. This chapter reminds us that empire will never have the last word.
The first image in Chapter 19 is a heavenly choir, the voices of a multitude of people crying out, “Hallelujah!” They shout “hallelujah” four times as they offer praise to God and to the Lamb. And if you hear Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” as I read this, then you’re on the right page—Revelation 19 is the text for the “Hallelujah Chorus.”
Jesus is represented in two different ways in this part of Revelation. First, Jesus is presented as the Lamb. This is a recurring image throughout the book. Second, Jesus is represented as a rider on a white horse. This is similar to the image of Jesus in Chapter 1: “his eyes were like a flame of fire… and from his mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining with full force” (Revelation 1:15-16).
It’s easy to get fixated on this second image, with the sword and the flames and the face that shines like the sun. We want the Jesus who vanquishes our enemies, but that’s not where we find the grace in this part of the story. The grace is in the image of the Lamb.
The rider on the white horse comes back into the scene to clear the way for the Lamb. Hallelujah!
There’s a celebration in the heavens, “for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready” (Revelation 19:7). Hallelujah!
Remember, this is a metaphor. Christ’s bride is the Church. We hear this metaphor in a lot of our hymns. Think of the hymn, “The Church’s One Foundation.” It’s one of the many, many hymns that come out of Revelation. The first verse states: “The church's one foundation is Jesus Christ, her Lord; she is his new creation by water and the Word: from heaven he came and sought her to be his holy bride.”
This is who we are, as the Church. Hallelujah!
We are in a relationship with the Christ. Hallelujah!
This is the grace of this story. Through the Church, we are in a relationship with Jesus Christ. We are invited to the wedding feast. Hallelujah!
What this story, no, what the entire Book of Revelation is telling us is that we have to stay in this relationship. Through this relationship is grace. Through this relationship is salvation. And we all turn away from this relationship from time to time. We all collaborate with the empire from time to time. We all need to repent from time to time, and then return to a right relationship with God.
What we always need to remember is that sin is not simply a collection of bad or hurtful actions. Sin is a category of relationship. Sin happens when we do things that separate us from God or from one another, and we all do this from time to time. But repentance is not simply stopping the bad acts.
Repentance is the return to relationship—with God and with one another. That means we always need to be working on our relationships with God and with one another. That means that we constantly have to reach out to the people who have left congregations and work on mending relationships.
It also means we have to be prepared to enter into relationships with younger people and people who weren’t brought up in the Church. We have to learn to speak the languages that they speak and navigate the places where they live, work, and play. And we can’t dismiss them when they don’t know how to write in cursive, or use a rotary phone.
If we’re going to share the Good News of Jesus Christ with new generations of people, with people who have left the Church, and also with people who have never been a part of the Church, then we have to repent from our old ways of being the Church. We have to repent from our old expectations that people will just wander in and find out how nice and friendly we are. We have to engage in new and different ways.
This is scary, I know. Nobody wants to change. Lord knows, I didn’t want to change—though I’ve been doing a lot of that over the last couple years. But I have some good news! We’ve already started doing this. We’ve been taking baby steps for the last five months. We have started to get out of our comfort zone, and that’s great! We only begin to grow once we get outside of our comfort zones.
This is how we live into the grace that’s described in Revelation and in the passage from the prophet Ezekiel. This is what it means to be given a new heart and a new spirit. When God grants us a new heart and a new spirit, we are called, we are obligated to put it to use. Repentance is not a single event, it’s a continuous call to relationship and engagement.
This call is for ALL of us—not just us pastors, but all of us. We have to practice relationship and serve as witnesses to Christ’s love for the whole world. We have to engage with people who believe differently and who don’t speak our language. We have to learn to speak to them in ways they can hear and on the platforms they inhabit. Only then can well proclaim to them that Jesus is Lord and he will reign forever and ever. Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Forever and ever. Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Thanks be to God. Amen.
Beloved, as you go forth into the world, remember that the truth of God’s love is always being revealed to us. So, go out and share that love. Learn to speak new languages and engage with new people. Go forth and be instruments of God’s peace and love and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. Go forth and be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!