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June 18th, 2017

Thy Kingdom Come

His kingdom will come because we prayed. 

Revelation 8:1-12

 

The kingdom of God

The title of the sermon today, “Thy Kingdom Come,” is obviously borrowed from the Lord’s Prayer, and at the end of the sermon we’re going to pray the Lord’s Prayer in an unusual form. What do we mean by the “kingdom of God”? The simplest definition is this:  the kingdom of God is where God reigns. It’s where God is completely in charge. Thus the kingdom of God is in you – if you let the Lord rule in your life. The kingdom of God is also the church – his people, where he rules, now. But the kingdom of God won’t be fully realized until the end of the age. God won’t fully reign in all things until after the second coming of Jesus.

As I envision the kingdom, I’m indebted to Pastor Leon Rowland, who worships here regularly, for loaning me a series of sermons preached many years ago by John Ortberg. I’m sure they were preached “many years ago” because they’re recorded on cassette tape. The sermons are on the Lord’s Prayer, and the one that gripped me Friday was on the petition, “Your kingdom come.” Ortberg has me thinking about what I personally look forward to when God takes charge of everything.

Ortberg uses both Scripture and his own personal desires to envision the kingdom. For example, he says, “The lion will lay down with the lamb. And the dog will make peace with the rabbit. And the cat will be no more.” He said that, so don’t blame it on me! My perspective’s a little different. Since God will wipe away all tears from our eyes, that means allergies will be no more in the coming kingdom – not to cats or pollen or mildew.

More importantly, no tears in God’s kingdom means no long, agonizing deaths from cancer, no teenagers dying in automobile accidents, no suicides, no young dads accidentally electrocuted, no pregnant moms agonizing over genetic defects, no adultery, no divorce, no job layoffs, no infertility, no addiction to alcohol or drugs or pornography.

There’s no pain in God’s kingdom either. We don’t need the motto, “no pain, no gain” anymore. It’s “no pain, all gain.” I can grow muscles like LeBron James without lifting weights. I can eat all the ice cream I want without worrying what the scale will say tomorrow morning. No pain – imagine it! No child is abused, no spouse is battered, nobody is bullied, no runner gets shin splints, no football player suffers a concussion, nobody stubs a toe in the middle of the night or gets shot playing baseball.

Doctors only do wellness visits. Police officers stop you to commend how well you’re driving. Counselors ask you how you feel about having no problems. Teachers have only students diagnosed with CLLS – Concentration and Love of Learning Syndrome. Musicians create an endless stream of fresh worship music while still letting me belt out my favorite old hymns. I can drink all the Diet Coke I want without suffering acid reflux. Pastors preach 3-hour sermons and nobody falls asleep or complains. Financial advisors never have to hedge their bets as the Dow Jones climbs to 10 billion and keeps growing eternally. Lawyers write contracts with only one short paragraph:  “We all agree and we will be kind to each other” because everyone keeps his word.

There’s no war in the kingdom, no need for armies or battleships or nuclear weapons or NATO or spying. There’s no war between politicians either. Republicans and Democrats say to each other, “No, let’s try your idea. It’s better than mine.” No Congressional committees are investigating Russian interference in our elections or obstruction of justice. Leaders don’t go to battle over healthcare because nobody needs any. There’s no need to fight for anything because God’s completely in charge of everything and all is made right.

Where do I find the hope that this will come to pass? I find it in the book of Revelation, particularly the section on the seven trumpets. We read only a few verses this morning, but I want to take you to the end of the trumpet series, where John says, “The seventh angel sounded his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, which said, ‘The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign forever and ever’” (Revelation 11:15).

Trumpets

The trumpets we use today are quite different than the trumpets of biblical times. Trumpets today are most often played as musical instruments, so pitch and tone are important as the trumpet contributes to a classical or jazz ensemble. Before the 15th century, trumpets were used primarily in battle or hunting. What all trumpets have in common is their megaphone effect. Air forced through a tube dramatically increases the volume. Trumpets are almost always loud because loud gains attention.

The seven trumpets of Revelation 8-11 are about gaining attention, the attention of the whole world, the attention of all human history, because God is ready to intervene cataclysmically to usher in the kingdom of God. Let me briefly overview this section of Revelation for you.

Trumpet #1 (8:7). The first angel trumpets, and a third of the land on the earth is scorched. This is probably the best place to say that I have no intention of either defending or undermining the view that you should read this literally. Whether precisely 19.16666 million square miles will burn is not the point. The point is cataclysmic destruction, but not total destruction. One-third is bad, but it’s not everything.

Trumpet #2 (8:8-9). The second angel trumpets, and a blazing mountain falls into the sea, turning one third of it into blood, also destroying a third of sea creatures and ships. Most writers see in this vision a parallel to the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79, destroying Pompeii and a sister city. The whole world heard about that fiery mountain.

Trumpet #3 (8:10-11). The third angel trumpets, and a great flaming star named Wormwood (the name of a plant that produces nausea but is rarely fatal) falls into the earth’s fresh water. Many people on earth die, perhaps because they can’t drink any water. (Wormwood is also the name C. S. Lewis gives to the younger devil being trained by his uncle in The Screwtape Letters.)

Trumpet #4 (8:12). The fourth angel trumpets, and a third of the heavenly bodies (sun, moon, and stars) darken so that a third of the day and night are without any light. Some of you are thinking, “That’s exactly why I don’t like Revelation. There’s all this random destruction and violence and nobody knows what it means.” Hold on. An eagle sounds a three-fold warning of doom to come because of the other three trumpets.

Trumpet #5 (9:1-11). The judgment turns on humans, specifically those who have not been sealed (protected) by God. The fifth angel trumpets, and a swarm of locusts with stings like scorpions are given power to torture but not kill, for five months.

Trumpet #6 (9:13-21). The sixth angel trumpets, and a vast cavalry of 200 million is released to kill a third of those on the earth. We then get a hint of what this is all about, because “the rest of mankind that were not killed by these plagues still did not repent” of their idolatry, murders, sexual immorality, and thefts.

As with the seven seals, two interludes follow the sixth trumpet. The interludes at first seem to be unrelated but are also about warning of judgment. And then, finally…

Trumpet #7 (11:15-19). “The kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign for ever and ever.” The whole series closes with the grand opening of God’s temple in heaven, accompanied by lightning and thunder, earthquake and hail.

The prayers of all the saints

Disputes over the book of Revelation may be the best biblical example of what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 8:1, “Knowledge puffs up.” Some study it in great detail with the effect of “I know something you don’t know” about the future. Others respond, “You don’t know what you think you know” and insist this is all symbolic. The result on both sides can be condescension toward others, even believers, who think otherwise.

My interest in Revelation is not gaining more knowledge about the future. It is how believers are to respond to adversity of any kind. My interest in the seven trumpets lies mainly in the first five verses of Revelation 8, the prelude to the trumpets.

Verse 1 is truly startling, if you are reading Revelation for the first time. It records the last of the seven seals. When we read the first six, each one intensifies the one before – from the love of conquest to war to famine to death to martyrs pleading, “How long?” to what appears to be a single earthquake so great that it not only shakes earth but the heavens as well. Don’t get lost in the cosmology. Feel the earth itself heave with terror.

We expect the seventh seal to unleash effects even worse than the sixth. Instead, there is silence in heaven “for about a half an hour.” Once again, don’t be distracted by silly questions like “Who has a watch in heaven?” Feel the impact of what’s been presented so far in Revelation about heaven:  a place of perpetual worship songs from millions of angels and the great multitude which no one can count, of galloping horses and commanding voices, of martyrs’ prayers and peals of thunder. Now imagine heaven falling to zero decibels for what must seem like, in that setting, an eternity.

Silence implies waiting, anticipating, not forcing what’s next. That’s why silence is such an important spiritual discipline, even for us. When do I have times where I learn to trust God so deeply that I can tune out the world and even my own voice?

The seven trumpeting angels are introduced briefly in verse 2 and then John sees and smells a single, unidentified angel holding a golden censer, which may have been stationary or portable, having “much incense to offer, with the prayers of all the saints.” We have already been introduced to “golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of all the saints” in Revelation 5:8. We have also met the martyrs under the altar (6:9-11), asking God, “How long… until you judge the inhabitants of the earth?”

Some Christian traditions use incense regularly. The rising, fragrant smoke symbolizes to eyes and nose prayer that ascends to God and pleases him. Incense was prescribed for worship by Moses (Ex. 30:34-36) and used in the tabernacle and temple by Jews, but nowhere required or disallowed by the New Testament for the church on earth.

The point of this passage is not the incense. It’s “the prayers of all the saints.” Who are the saints? The believers in John’s seven churches. Followers of Jesus in Ireland when St. Patrick evangelized them in the fourth century. Monks and nuns in the orders of Benedict and Francis. Catholics through the ages who placed their trust in Jesus Christ. Protestants who pushed back against them. Anabaptists who died at the hands of the reformers. Native Americans in South and North America who responded to the Gospel. Hawaiians and Chinese and Indians and Russians and Koreans and Aborigines and we could go on and on through every century and on every continent. Our German Reformed forebears. Your spiritual ancestors and mine. You and I are among “all the saints.”

Any saint who has ever prayed anywhere for anything is represented with this golden bowl of incense. We pray because we want God to right the world. We want God to fix injustice, to heal disease, to give hope, to overcome death, to help us cope, to bring comfort and patience. We want God to take charge of his world, to usher in the kingdom where we can stop asking him for things because the whole world is under his reign.

You may say, “This is not what I prayed for. I want goodness and beauty and love, not destruction of the earth by plagues and death.” Revelation reminds us that in order for God to make all things new, evil must be fully vanquished. And don’t say the silly thing:  “My God wouldn’t do something like that.” Whoever “my God” or “your God” is, is irrelevant. God is a God of total justice and mercy, and when he is done doing what he will do, no one will second guess him. He will do what is right and good.

And he will do it in response to the prayers of his people. The golden bowl of incense is not full of heroic acts or history-altering battles or reformations or civil rights reversals – not that any of them are insignificant. We should do all we can to give the world a glimpse of what God’s reign looks like.

What heaven is collecting are the prayers of all the saints who pray as Jesus taught us, “Thy kingdom come.” It’s not about the repetition of the literal words, although there’s certainly nothing wrong with them. Nor is it about always saying exactly the right thing. Paul tells us that the Holy Spirit turns our weakness, our prayers out of ignorance into intercession before the Father “in accordance with God’s will” (Roman 8:26-27).

We may think our prayers don’t matter. In Revelation all of heaven becomes silent, and seven angelic trumpeters signaling God’s readiness to pour out judgment on the world waits until one angel can hold up a golden bowl of fragrant, rising smoke to remind us that in the end, all those prayers are singularly responsible for ushering in the kingdom of God. His kingdom will come because we prayed. Amen.

Let us pray.[1]  There were great voices in heaven, saying:  The kingdoms of this world have become the kingdom of the Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign for ever and ever.

Pastor:  O God, who has made all things by your power, the King and Ruler of the world, glorious in beauty and truth and love,
People:  Our Father, who is in heaven…

Pastor:  O God, you have shown us the glory of your kingdom in the majestic love of Jesus Christ,
People:  Hallowed be your Name.

Pastor:  O God, who is always working in the world through your mighty and creative Spirit to build your kingdom among us,
People:  Your kingdom come….

Pastor:  O God, more wonderful in your perfection than all that we could ever desire or know,
People:  Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Pastor:  O God, who has made us in your image, that we might bring you glory,
People:  Give us this day our daily bread.

Pastor:  O God, who has given us life through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that we in turn might reveal to the world your grace,
People:  Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. 

Pastor:  O God, whose Son Jesus Christ was tempted in every way as we are, yet without sin,
People:  Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

 Pastor:  O God, whose kingdom is where your will is done, and in whom there is perfect freedom,
People:  Yours is the kingdom…

Pastor:  O God, whose will is power, and who grants your people the power of your Holy Spirit,
People:  Yours is the kingdom and the power…. 

Pastor:  O God, by whose mighty arm of justice and triumph of grace the kingdoms of this world will become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ,
People:  Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory, for ever and ever.

Pastor:  O God, who has set before us the great hope of your sovereign rule over all of heaven and earth, rule in our lives now by your Holy Spirit.  May all our thoughts, desires, and actions be more and more pleasing to you. Let your kingdom grow in us and through us so that the world will see your power and your glory. We pray in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
People:  Amen.

 

[1] Adapted from Prayer No. 4, The Hymnal, © 1941, 1969, 1985, Eden Publishing/United Church Press.

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