Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Let the high praises of God be in our mouths

It's no surprise that the apostle John's Revelation (Greek apokalypsos: something revealed or made known, not some end-time cataclysmic event) is one of my favorite books of the Bible. It not only brings everything to a fluorishing finish, but it shows the depth and meaning of how we live our lives today. And with the stuff on apostasy I posted about yesterday, it again found its way into my thoughts. The following is from a lengthy (sorry!) journal entry I wrote two months ago after reading this book several times.

"They said to the mountains and to the rocks, 'Fall on us and hide us from the presence of Him who sits on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb; for the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to stand? ... After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could count ... standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes and palm branches were in their hands" (The Revelation 6.16-17; 7.9).

A day is coming--it's in motion already--when Jesus the King will be revealed in flaming fire with all his angels (Matt. 25.31; 2 Ths. 1.7-10). I don't know what it will look like, though the Son of Man promises to come as stunningly and obviously as lightning that lights up the dark skies from one horizon to the other (Matt. 24.27). There are "myriads of myriads, and thousands of thousands" of heavenly host who will all come and fill the skies. Could they look like flaming nightmares, with white, streaming hair and swords of such flame that no man can bear the sight (Rev. 9)? Surely it will be so for many. But what a welcome sight of beauty they will be for us who have believed!

The world is getting worse, eventually to the point when utter chaos and hopelessness will reign in our sight, and the chorus of man will be, "Who can stand?"

Yet in the face of this there is, in fact, a true hope: some, even a great multitude, do stand before the throne and the Lamb! Who are such people? In addition to the angels (7.1, 11) they are the people purchased by the Lamb's blood and sealed with his mark (7.2-8; 9.4; cf. Ezek. 9.4). The 'sealing' of Christ's purchased saints is more than sufficient to withstand the day of history's awful 'unsealings' (Rev. 6.1 - 8.5). It allows us to stand, to withstand all of evil and judgment. For his blood has washed us of our iniquities (1.5; 7.14) and has bought for us faith and the Holy Spirit.

It is on this hope that Paul writes, "No matter how many promises God has made, they are 'Yes' in Christ. And so though him the 'Amen' is spoken by us to the glory of God. Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come" (2 Cor. 1.20-22, NIV).

What is Paul's response to the Messiah, who has become our righteousness and sure anchor of hope before God? He proclaims "Amen!" to God's glory: he worships! And that is exactly what those standing before the God of glory do: they shout praises and sing hymns, longing for the truth of God the Just and God the King to become ever more manifest in the earthly sphere. That's the resounding "Amen!" and "It will be so!" Sometimes it's in a painful longing: "How long, O Lord, holy and true ...?" (6.10). But all the while they know the end: Christ will reign with an iron scepter and with peace and love and equity for all eternity (11.15-17). So it is the worshiping, praying, waiting community, indwelled by the Spirit and living in his fruitfulness (Eph. 5.18-21), that stands and will stand until the glorious completion of this age. (And it's a completion, not an end merely: God's redemptive plan is moving somewhere, blown by the wind [pneuma] of his Spirit. It is not a terminus, but rather a new beginning of eternity that is approaching us with unstoppable momentum.)

O Jesus, how can we not pray? How we not praise? It is our life, our hope, our great privilege to participate in this triumph you have wrought.

* * *

Reading on in the Apocalypse, I see God bring together more threads. In chapter 12, upon Jesus' birth the dragon gets unceremoniously dumped to the earth, a sore loser. God is setting up his unending, covert victory parade in--seriously?--the birth of a little boy laid in a stone feed trough. The downfall of Satan and the world becomes ever the more sharp and decisive in the death of the Lamb (John 12.31). Even I still balk in disbelief--sometimes even a bit of disappointment, perhaps--that God chooses such humble means to bring about his salvation work here on Earth. He even calls today's kingdom-deeds "small things" (Zech. 4.10).

But the glorious fulfillment is coming. Bricks of God's temple are getting fitted into a structure, a paradigm--a kingdom--of heretofore unseen and unfathomed beauty and radiance where everything good will be seen and known and felt in the face of Christ.

Even now God invites us to participate in what he's doing in the downfall of evil and in the spread of his renown (Luke 10.17-20; Acts 1.5-8). Somehow, some way, our actions and prayers matter and influence and take part in the history of the cosmos that has been decreed to pass according to the minutiae of God's unalterable will (Eph. 1.9-11). This is clear from Rev. 8.1-5 and 12.11 and the Lukan text. Yet it's never about us or what we do. It's about God and what he has said, is saying, and will say; what he has done, is doing, and will yet do. The only right and enduring response is worship. Even Jesus acknowledged this: "Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you"--what we're doing--"but rejoice that your names are recorded in heaven." Eugene H. Peterson writes in Reversed Thunder: "Their work was ancillary to his [Jesus']; to keep their focus sharp, they should aim their rejoicing at his accomplishment on their behalf. We are the recipients and participants in salvation, not its makers and shapers." *

It's inescapable: the call to worship beckons to all of us in all stages, in all places, in all circumstances. It's what fixes our eyes on our one sure hope: the risen Lord Jesus Christ. It keeps us in tune with the Almighty God who declares and who judges, who shapes and who saves. Those who don't worship and fight for faith and seek God's mercy and his Spirit lose focus. They fall for the sellouts that promise so much but deliver so little. That is the 'mark of the beast,' the 666. It's lack of worship that makes us run after unnecessary 'oil and wine when we clearly don't get our needed nourishment of 'wheat and barley' (Rev. 6.6). It's no wonder that the chief act of God's holy people in the Apocalypse is worship. It keeps them--and us--sane and ordered, focused on what we have and what is to come in Christ from God's giving hands, rather than on what we think we lack. Worship and thanksgiving allow us to say and see, "I belong," not "I need more belongings." They allow us to say, "Even when are faithless, he remains faithful, for he cannot deny himself." They give us direction--God--and not a chaotic fretting and pursuit of empty desires and false securities.

In light of this, it's a wonder how muted and dulled, how vapid my worship and desire to truly see God is. When was the last time I voiced--let alone shouted--praises to God my Savior with my roommates, in my prayers, or in the assembly? I can't think of it. Father, I know David wasted away when he held back speaking the good (Ps. 39.2). It's a fight, it's a knock-down, bare-knuckle fight for faith and joy, and because I'm part of the same church as the apostle John's, the same called and chosen and faithful ones who've overcome through Jesus (Rev. 17.14), I must and will praise you with words, my heart, my mind, my daily living.

The LORD takes pleasure in His people;
He will beautify the afflicted ones with salvation.

Let the godly ones exult in glory;
Let them sing for joy on their beds.
Let the high praises of God be in their mouth,
And a two-edged sword in their hand.

(Psalm 149.4-6)
Eugene H. Peterson, Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John & the Praying Imagination (New York: HarperCollins, 1988), 161.

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