“The Final Battle and the Last Word on Salvation”
August 21, 2022
Our reading begins with another salvation song from John. There are three throughout the book and this is the third and final one. It’s interesting to noticing, that the salvation songs in John’s book are all set against a background of catastrophe. Throughout this poetic book, John has painted a picture of the incredible scope of catastrophe that his churches and all of humanity is faced with.
There is nothing puny about John’s depiction of catastrophe – it’s hard to keep watching as seals are broken, trumpets blown and bowls are poured out. There are four horsemen who are unleashed to bring war, famine and sickness. A dragon and her two beasts wage war against the nations and slaughter a quarter of the population. There are earthquakes, plagues, the stars fall out of the sky. Nothing and no one is exempt from the catastrophe.
It is hard to keep watching as John continually unfolds visions of catastrophe. It’s hard because we are a people who are well-acquainted with catastrophe. In fact, reading John’s book may at times feel a bit like watching the news as the flood of bad news continues to flood our TV and phone screens and continues to take up rent-free space in our aching hearts and anxious minds. Some of us have personally experienced the sharp pain of catastrophe either through a death, a diagnosis or some other loss. Others of us watch the accumulation of it in the lives around us, in our nation, our world and we can’t help but feel at times overwhelmed by it all.
Sometimes it is all too tempting to try to look away from the catastrophes surrounding us on all sides.
John knows this. John knows the catastrophes suffered and witnessed by his churches. He knows how oppressed they are. But he also knows that unless these catastrophes are fully taken into account, unless the full scope of darkness and evil unleashed on the world is gathered up, ordered and set in its place, there can be no truthful telling of hope.
John knows that “if there is no accurate perception of catastrophe, there can be no adequate perception of salvation.” (Eugene Peterson). There can be no salvation without first accounting for all of the evil and the harm done. There can be no resurrection without first acknowledging the death that has taken place. Real hope does not turn a blind eye to the darkness.
In The Lord of the Rings, Sam Gamgee and Frodo are journeying to destroy the one ring and Sam says to Frodo:
“It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger, they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass.”
This is why I think the story of Lord of the Rings is so powerful and resonant for people. (I know, I’m sorry I have to get in as many Lord of the Rings references during this series as I can). The story and the hope in it is so beautiful because of how intense the evil and the darkness in it is. Sam and Frodo aren’t strolling through Candyland to destroy the one ring; they’re cowering through Mordor, the land of fire and ash and orcs, on a journey that will surely take their lives.
I’ve heard some people say that Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings as a sort of trauma therapy after fighting in World War I. He knew how to write such powerful stories about hope and goodness and friendship, because he knew real evil. He had seen it and he took it seriously.
And John, in his letter to his seven churches, takes evil seriously. He names it. He numbers it. He orders it and lays it all out on the table to be seen and acknowledged. And it is here in these chapters that everything comes to a head. Good and evil have been locked in combat. Catastrophe has been reigning, but now John’s readers are properly ready to appreciate his energetic rendition of salvation.
There are two elements that animate John’s vision of salvation. A great war and a meal. Both elements are necessary to grasp the scope of God’s salvation plan.
But I want to pause for a second before we dive into John’s expansive salvation vision. I want to pause to share a joke, which may seem out of place, but stick with me.
A pastor was presenting to a group of kids about “being good” in order to get to heaven.
At the end of his talk, he asked, “Where do you want to go?”
“Heaven! Heaven!” Yelled Little Lisa.
“And what do you have to be to get there?” asked the pastor.
“Dead!” Yelled Little Johnny.
I like this joke because I think it illustrates all of the worst ways we have come to think about salvation. When I say the word “salvation”, what comes to mind? Does it conjure up visions of heaven in the afterlife? Or perhaps it brings up guilt-ridden feelings of sin in your life, that unless atoned for will earn you a one way ticket to hell? Or perhaps it conjures up anxieties about some cosmic scale of good deeds and bad deeds.
Salvation is a word that gets thrown around a lot in church and Christians circles. And for good reason – it shows up all over the Bible! But too often I think we reduce salvation to less than what the biblical writers have in mind when they use this term.
The root meaning in Hebrew of “salvation” is to be broad, to become spacious, to enlarge. It carries the sense of deliverance from an existence that has become compressed, confined, and cramped.
As Eugene Peterson writes, “Salvation is the plot of history. It is the most comprehensive theme in scripture, overtaking and surpassing catastrophe. Salvation is God’s determination to rescue his creation; it is his activity in recovering the world. It is personal and impersonal, it deals with souls and cities, it touches sin and sickness. There is a reckless indiscrimateness about salvation.”
Scripture is very clear that salvation is the action of God. It is always far more than we think it is, far more than we are experiencing at any one time.
John’s vision of salvation here prevents us from reducing salvation to terms we can understand, manage or achieve on our own. His vision also prevents us from reducing salvation to merely some spiritual pie in the sky reality that we have to wait for until we’re dead.
And so John gives us a war and a meal. Both are necessary to understand what God is up to. Both are needed to understand the scope of God’s salvation plan.
John starts by showing us a meal. It’s a feast to celebrate a marriage. But not just any marriage. It’s a marriage between God and God’s people. It’s a reunion, a reconciliation. God has come to dwell with and for his people. This is reason for a grand meal!
If you pay attention, meals play an important role throughout Jesus’ ministry. He turned water into wine at a wedding, he ate with sinners and the sick; his last meeting with his disciples before dying was over a meal and his first encounter with some of them after being resurrected was over fried fish on the beach. It was over a meal that Zaccheus learned about salvation.
We know that Jesus worshipped and taught in synagogues and temple, the typical places you expect God to be. But actually, most of his teaching and prayer and relationships took place in streets and fields, on mountains and in homes where he shared a meal. (Peterson)
And before Jesus left his disciples, he gave them bread and wine and told them to share that meal whenever they were together in remembrance of him. We still share the same meal together once a month in communion.
And as the churches and theologies of Christians have changed over the centuries, swinging to and fro on a pendulum, one thing has always remained constant, even if we can’t all agree on what it means or how it should be done. We still always share a meal in remembrance of Jesus and the salvation he has brought and is bringing.
There’s something so beautiful about this communion meal, because it sets the contours of salvation for us. Just as we receive the bread and the cup, we receive Christ’s body and blood; his very life becomes a part of ours. In taking communion we are reminded that salvation is something to be received with open hands; it cannot be earned. We experience the grace of a God whose arms are wide open – it is a meal that everyone is invited to! And at the communion table we are reminded that this salvation feast is something to be eaten together, not alone.
At the communion table all worldly distinctions like race, sex, gender, money, political views all fall away as we share the same meal that affirms how beautifully and wonderfully made in the image of God we all are.
You know, not everyone can comprehend a doctrine, not everyone can obey a commandment, but everyone can eat a piece of bread, drink a cup of wine or grape juice, and can understand a simple statement: “my body, my blood – literally my lifeforce—given to you.”
The communion meal that we share together is at once so ordinary – it’s just bread and grape juice from Yokes…nothing special, and yet it is also extra-ordinary, because we believe that through such ordinary elements we can commune with God and be tangibly reminded of how beloved we are. And it’s no accident that John begins his salvation vision with a meal that is reminiscent of Jesus’ last with his disciples.
Because just like this meal, salvation has to do with the stuff of ordinary living, like meals and walks and hugs and community and doing chores and calling a friend and raising a child and crying with someone and wondering what all of this life is really about. Salvation is found and experienced in the ordinary stuff of life – the stuff created and redeemed by God that is declared to be good.
Salvation is not something we wait for until we die, it’s something we’re invited into even now. Salvation is finding ourselves in a broad and spacious place; it is being healed from the cramped places in our lives.
And I feel sorry for anyone who would reduce John’s book and salvation to something that just happens in “the end-times” or after you die, because how sad would life be if that was true. If this was all just a test to see if you could get into heaven or hell in the end. Then what’s the point of all of this? Let’s just get it over with.
But based on the seriousness of John’s visions, I think John knows that heaven and hell aren’t just something we wait to experience until after we’re dead—they’re realities, ways of existing that we can experience even now in this life. Jesus said he was bringing his kingdom here to earth and that it is already here.
Hence, John shows us a great war that is taking place during the salvation feast. But the battle has already been won. Jesus rides into battle on a white stallion. But did you notice that he is already covered in blood and the battle hasn’t even started yet? Jesus rides into battle covered in his own blood; he is not here to shed anyone else’s blood. His only weapon is his words. He has already won; he is the slain lamb who is victorious. He has conquered evil not through more violence, but through sacrificial love.
But still there is a battle that rages on. We know how it ends, but John includes it anyway to remind us that salvation is coming in to being in the face of furious opposition. John takes the evil and the catastrophes of the world seriously, but not too seriously. He knows they’re already beaten, that the lamb is victorious, but he also knows his people are still living in between.
And so it is for us. “If we suppose that salvation is a diploma that qualifies us for eternity, that we can frame and just hang on our bedroom wall, then we have it all wrong. It is a battle. The moment we walk away from the communion meal, having received the life of Jesus, we walk into Armageddon.” (Peterson). John doesn’t portray it this way to scare us, but to remind us that salvation, that putting the world back together and restoring Creation to wholeness is serious, difficult work.
Two elements: a meal and a war. The meal reminds us that salvation is something tangible, not just spiritual pie in the sky that happens after we’re dead. It has to do with the ordinary stuff of life; it has to do with being invited by God out of the cramped places of our lives into a spacious place of healing and wholeness, where we know how loved we are. Salvation is a gift to be received, not earned, and it is offered to us every second of the day.
The war reminds us that salvation is more to do than learning to have good manners and be nice people. In a world where there is racism and poverty and child hunger and exploitation, this is war and there is a lot at stake.
And this battle is not just out there, but it’s also in here (gestures to heart). A battle rages on as daily I’m assaulted with my own insecurities about not being good enough. I’m not a good enough dad, I’m not good enough pastor, I’m not a good enough husband or friend, I’m not good enough to be noticed and loved by the God of the universe. John’s battle for salvation rages in our own heads and hearts
But we do not fight these battles alone. We do not even really fight it in the way we are used to fighting. Jesus leads the charge, covered in his own blood, showing us how sacrificial love and compassion will win the day. Reminding us through a meal that salvation is found all around us in the ordinary stuff of life. Because God’s salvation plan encompasses the whole world, all of his creation—as we’ll see in the final chapter next week. And if that’s the case, then there is salvation springing up all around us, beckoning us to participate, to join in the celebration feast that is already taking place.
Amen and may it be so.