21 July 2016

that hideous strength

As he sat alone on the island, exiled from the mainland of the empire, John had a vision of what must soon take place. He composed his work apocalyptically – a manner given to those who will have eyes to see and ears to hear a revelation through the Spirit of God. It is not so much that John had a series of dreams that would predict the final days before the end of the world, but rather that John saw a depiction of the increasing conflict between the kingdom of God and the peoples of the world, and all of the evils that challenge divine sovereignty and peace. He does not give us timeless messages, but rather timely truths – a worldview from God's perspective – intended to inspire faithful diligence and evoke terror at the prospect of God removing his presence from Creation.

At a certain point in the vision an evil trinity arrives on the stage: a dragon, a beast from the sea, and a beast from the land (Revelation 12–13). There is no doubt to the identity of the first, for John readily identifies the head of this wicked threesome as Satan himself, and leaves the remaining two to their descriptive traits as they mimic the divine Son and Holy Spirit. The description of the Sea Beast has brought about much discussion, the vast majority of which seems to focus on the wrong parts. Often there are attempted equivalents to some sort of antichrist figure, even though the Apocalypse never once uses that word. But in making this into a particularly sinister figure we are quick to think of the worst of the worst, most typically a figure such as Hitler. And once the figure did not bring about the end-of-the-world scenarios that are woven into these narratives, it is commonplace to think that someone much worse will fulfill the biblical text. In looking for these narrowly-defined super-villains, we are misreading the text and missing out on what is happening right in front of our eyes.

Embedded in this evil trinity is a way of life that has caused all sorts of people to be deceived by that which appears to be divine and good and gospel, but which is, in reality, a grotesque and hideous force that wages war against the Creator and brings destruction upon the earth. There are many who come and worship this Beast, and the one who has given it authority (13:4), and it rose to power and prominence for a season, convincing those many that they were in the right because of that initial success and its appearance of invincibility. All the while, this Apocalypse is working to warn us that something very wrong is taking place.

Of course, we think of ourselves as too sophisticated for mythical dragons and evil cosmic forces (even though our entertainment industry would tell a different story). But our society's saturation with mythological tales, along with our increasing desensitization to vulgarity and graphic violence, has brought the worship of this evil trinity into the center of our culture. We casually dismiss ancient tales of beasts and think they have no relevance for us today. And we who read the Apocalypse may think it absurd that any modern people would be lured into the worship of such monstrous figure as is described in this text.

And that's when the trap springs.

Let us remember that the vision of John's Apocalypse is God's vantage point, not ours – unless we are open to the Spirit to see through the eyes of faith. That is to say, nobody in their right mind would willingly give their worship and allegiance to such a hideous beast, let alone to a figure readily identified as Satan (or even some antichrist figure, if we were to find a description of one). But do we not move our commitment away from the gospel whenever we adopt worldly definitions of victory, success, and achievement? Do we not abandon our faith each time we pursue power and authority through the destructive and self-indulgent means? Have we not each become anti-christ in our lives when we choose to speak and act in ways that betray the sacrifice of the Lamb of God? Indeed, there appear to be many anti-christs among us (1 John 2:18).

And when you look around it appears that indeed the whole world is falling prey to the promises of success through militant power over-and-above the call to character in all things. Men and women are quickly showing their lack of integrity at the prospect of being on the winning side of some political-cultural struggle that, in reality, will lead us further down the path of destruction. Astonishingly, there have been many who self-identified with the kingdom of God grab hold of worldly ideals and methods, driven out of fear and anger rather than love, sacrifice, and compassion. Very few are choosing to stand this day on the characteristics of the kingdom, and are giving the living sacrifices of their lives over to a hideous and horrific evil.

This has become who we are because we did not open our hearts and minds to the Spirit of God, bur rather to the many voices that call us to a way contrary to the gospel. It is the third figure, the Land Beast, that goes out across the world to inspire worship and allegiance to the Sea Beast, that is echoed all over our nation today. We hear this summons from every corner, announced in our news, lauded by our politicians, glorified in our entertainment, and enacted in the brutality of politicized violence. This call to follow invites us each to make a choice; we must decide if we are going to overcome evil by finding ourselves a bigger thug, or if we will have the courage to act on the moral conviction and sacrifice of the Lamb.

Today, this battle is raging with great fury, and it has become difficult not to be swept away from the center of the gospel. The call of the world is loud and persuasive, a temptation not unlike Jesus' when Satan offered him victory without sacrifice (Matthew 4:8–10). Perhaps we believe that, even though we have temporarily suspended our commitment to the gospel (because the times are perilous), we will be able to reenact our faithful lifestyle once we have arrived. This is yet another lie that is woven into the narrative of those who seek to justify the world's means of power. Whenever we willingly align with that which is contrary to the gospel we do damage to ourselves and to others – often in ways that are irreversible – and we show that our trust does not rest in Almighty God alone.

There is a reason why the gospel demands sacrifice to self: surrender to a cruciform life is the only way to be conformed to the image of Christ, which will bring about a greater transformation to the world than every political promise could ever hope to achieve. We must learn the message of the Apocalypse that there is a victory much greater than that of politics – namely, the singular call to faithfulness that Christ gives to his church. He cares not that we are successful in the world's estimation, that we are ridiculed and narrow-minded and outdated by our culture, or that the outworking of our commitment is threatened by the laws of our land.

"This calls for patient endurance and faithfulness on the part of God's people" (13:10). The only evaluation of the people of God found in the Apocalypse (or anywhere else in scripture, for that matter) is whether faithfulness to the gospel alone is their defining characteristic.

As the people of God, let us no longer lay our living sacrifices upon the altar of this evil trinity, adopting the methods and messages that prey on fear and inspire hate, clinging to a vicious cycle of power that unleashes destruction upon the earth. Perhaps we can quiet the noise of a thousand political voices screaming to be heard, enter into the silence of Word and Spirit, and once again hear his still small voice. For the Word spoken in that voice holds the power of Creation itself, bringing the universe into existence, and holding the power to restore all things in peace and love.

And so, John tells us, "This calls for wisdom" (13:18). Will we choose our path because of a thousand worldly voices calling to us, or will we follow along the narrow way that leads to life, to which the Spirit beckons each of us to come? In the vision that John had it was the Spirit and the Bride (church) that work together in saying, "Come" (22:17). It is very much a decision of life and death, and each person must now choose for themselves if it will be the wide road or the narrow path. It is with considerable anguish that I look around and see so many of God's people speaking and acting in ways that betray the gospel of Christ Jesus, all for the sake of winning an ill-fated cultural war – a shortsighted and temporary triumph of evil that will give way to the ultimate redemption of this world by its Creator.

"Whoever has ears, let them hear."

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