Saturday, March 19, 2016

Sea of Glass

Now when they drew near to Jerusalem and came to Bethphage, to the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village in front of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord needs them,’ and he will send them at once.” This took place to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet, saying,

“Say to the daughter of Zion,

‘Behold, your king is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.’”

The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them. They brought the donkey and the colt and put on them their cloaks, and he sat on them. Most of the crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. And the crowds that went before him and that followed him were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” And when he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up, saying, “Who is this?” And the crowds said, “This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee.”

And Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers.” (Matthew 21:1-13)

In this passage for Palm Sunday, we have the conquering king entering his city gates to many loud hosannas, and then he goes into the temple and cleanses it of the defiled market it had become. This is a passage of Christ's victory over his enemies, but we look at it in an historical context and think of it as something that happened long ago.  We try to recapture the "feeling" of the triumphal entry by waving palm fronds and shouting "hosanna" at the top of our lungs, but in the end, the scene alone doesn't seem to have any meaning for us, except to see something historical in the life of Jesus, especially knowing that he is triumphantly entering Jerusalem in order to die.  The crucifixion has meaning for us, because Christ dies for the forgiveness of our sins, but this triumphal entry seems to be a pit-stop on the way to the important event. We think, if these cheering people only knew what was going to happen to Jesus here, they probably wouldn't be cheering. However, this scene, like all conquering king scenes in the Bible, are meant to point us to something in addition to the immediate historical context. Let's look a similar scene from Revelation:

Then I saw another sign in heaven, great and amazing, seven angels with seven plagues, which are the last, for with them the wrath of God is finished.

And I saw what appeared to be a sea of glass mingled with fire—and also those who had conquered the beast and its image and the number of its name, standing beside the sea of glass with harps of God in their hands. And they sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying,

“Great and amazing are your deeds,
O Lord God the Almighty!
Just and true are your ways,
O King of the nations!
Who will not fear, O Lord,
and glorify your name?
For you alone are holy.
All nations will come
and worship you,
for your righteous acts have been revealed.” (Revelation 15:1-4)

Here is some "end of the world" stuff to compare to the triumphal entry. It seems different, but we do have something similar. We have voices lifted up in triumph, and we have the defeat of an enemy. If we look at this passage in context, we see that the whole number-and-image-of-the-beast reference is to worldly commerce. Also, we see that those who sing the song are the ones who conquer, or resist, that beast and his image and his number. This is an alternate vision of the joyful cry alongside the overturning of the moneychangers' tables in the temple.

A few words about Revelation in general. Revelation seems to be a very complicated and scary book, but it is actually a very simple book. It is an extended letter of encouragement for persecuted Christians in all eras. There are two groups of people: the church and the world. The church resists the world, the world attacks and persecutes the church. This is important for the encouragement of the readers: the world seems to win. The world follows the devil, ultimately, and the church follows Christ. Finally, Christ returns and the world and the church get separated, the former to everlasting torment and the latter to everlasting life. That's it. That's what the book is about, and it repeats this scenario over and over and over and over and over in a series of visions to John. Once we get past the personal addresses to seven churches in Revelation 1-3, John is shown a series of visions that represent the same event using different analogies. This is not a string of events that are going to happen in chronological order, first this happens, then this happens. The "thens" are attached to what John sees. First I saw this, then I saw that. What John is seeing is the same event happening over and over and over, each with a different spin, so that someone reading the letter in any age of the world can connect with at least one of the images and be encouraged in the face of persecution and even death. This is what Revelation is about. Now, back to our passage.

Seven angels are about to deliver seven plagues, or another version of the same conquering event, but first John sees the result, a vision of victory. Remember our two characters, the church and the world? Here is the church standing by the sea of glass and fire. They are the ones who conquered becoming part of the world. The world follows the beast, who encourages them to worship the dragon, who is the devil. In Revelation 13 it says that no one is allowed to buy or sell unless he has the mark of the beast. Essentially, no one is worldly whom the devil has not marked as his own. The world follows the devil. What about the church? In Revelation 14 we read that the church has the mark of God on them, and instead of buying and selling and trading with the world, the church sings a new song that only the church can learn, and it is the song of the Lamb, for the church follows the Lamb.

Back to our sea of glass. This is a vision of the end. The church stands beside the sea of glass mingled with fire, singing the song of Moses and the song of the Lamb. Where is the world, the followers of the beast, of the devil? They are drowned in the sea of glass and fire. How do we know this? Because the church is singing the song of Moses as well as the song of the Lamb. What is the song of Moses? For that, we go to Exodus 15. In that chapter, we get the song of Moses, which describes the parting of the Red Sea. Israel passes through the waters on dry land. Pharaoh's army attempts to follow. Once beside the sea, Israel watches as the waters crash back in, drowning the whole army. Then they sing. Now, even though this is an historical event, it also points to the apocalypse. The church passes through persecution on all sides and gets to the shore of the sea, and then the sea floods back in and drowns the world. Finally, there's an eternal celebration. This is encouragement for the persecuted church, or as Revelation states over and over, "Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and their faith in Jesus."

Revelation may have the same vision over and over, but the whole Bible also reveals the same story over and over. The Exodus was an historical event, but it also points to the end victory on Judgment Day. Likewise, the triumphal entry is an historical event, but it also points to the end victory on Judgment Day. The Daughter of Zion is the church, and her king is Jesus. The church sings the song of the Lamb in the words, "Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!" When Christ enters Jerusalem, the whole city--representing the world--is stirred up, not knowing who this is, because the world did not know him. The world cannot learn the song of the Lamb. Finally, Jesus overthrows those who are persecuting the church in the form of defiling the temple with illicit commerce. God's earth is overrun with the world, which persecutes the church, the conquering king returns and sweeps his scythe over the whole earth and removes the chaff. These passages are encouraging for faithful Christians. Exodus 15, Revelation 15, and Matthew 21 all focus on that encouragement for the saints.