Revelation 17:1-18 – A Vision of the End

“The Whore of Babylon” by Hans Burgkmair, 1523

One of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the punishment of the great prostitute, who sits by many waters.With her the kings of the earth committed adultery, and the inhabitants of the earth were intoxicated with the wine of her adulteries.”

Then the angel carried me away in the Spirit into a wilderness. There I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was covered with blasphemous names and had seven heads and ten horns. The woman was dressed in purple and scarlet, and was glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls. She held a golden cup in her hand, filled with abominable things and the filth of her adulteries. The name written on her forehead was a mystery:

BABYLON THE GREAT

THE MOTHER OF PROSTITUTES

AND OF THE ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH

I saw that the woman was drunk with the blood of God’s holy people, the blood of those who bore testimony to Jesus.

When I saw her, I was greatly astonished. Then the angel said to me: “Why are you astonished? I will explain to you the mystery of the woman and of the beast she rides, which has the seven heads and ten horns. The beast, which you saw, once was, now is not, and yet will come up out of the Abyss and go to its destruction. The inhabitants of the earth whose names have not been written in the book of life from the creation of the world will be astonished when they see the beast, because it once was, now is not, and yet will come.

“This calls for a mind with wisdom. The seven heads are seven hills on which the woman sits. They are also seven kings. Five have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come; but when he does come, he must remain for only a little while. The beast who once was, and now is not, is an eighth king. He belongs to the seven and is going to his destruction.

“The ten horns you saw are ten kings who have not yet received a kingdom, but who for one hour will receive authority as kings along with the beast. They have one purpose and will give their power and authority to the beast. They will wage war against the Lamb, but the Lamb will triumph over them because he is Lord of lords and King of kings—and with him will be his called, chosen and faithful followers.”

Then the angel said to me, “The waters you saw, where the prostitute sits, are peoples, multitudes, nations and languages. The beast and the ten horns you saw will hate the prostitute. They will bring her to ruin and leave her naked; they will eat her flesh and burn her with fire. For God has put it into their hearts to accomplish his purpose by agreeing to hand over to the beast their royal authority, until God’s words are fulfilled. The woman you saw is the great city that rules over the kings of the earth.” (New International Version)

Today’s New Testament lesson is the beginning of a long and elaborate vision of the Apostle John. The vision includes a woman and a scarlet beast, and the angel’s interpretation of what John saw.

An Incredible Vision

“The Whore of Babylon” from Martin Luther’s 1534 translation of the Bible.

Consistent with Old Testament’s imagery depicting the relationship between God and people, John’s vision is of a prostitute whom the kings of the earth committed adultery. This great offense will not be overlooked. It is provoking divine wrath.

The prostitute sits on a scarlet beast, an imposing and rather incredible looking creature with seven heads and ten horns. The woman and the beast signify and portray the pinnacle of opulence, extravagance, and luxury. Yet, she is also the ultimate depiction of corruption, indecency, and irreverence.

The great prostitute influences all the world. She is the evil genius behind the blood of the Christian martyrs. The woman deceives and connives so that she can wreak her violence against the saints of God.

John appears to be slack jawed with all this. The prostitute’s seductive influence has been so great that nations fall to her erotic power. She is so diabolically smooth, her presentation so marvelous, that even John is mesmerized by her.

Why Are You Astonished?

The angel’s question to John is akin to saying, “Well, what did you expect? The Wicked Witch of the West? Evil is much more sinister than an ugly old woman. Unrighteousness cloaks itself in nice garb. Snap out of it, man!”

Astonishment and awe belong to God, not some alluring vision of beauty. The enticement only traps humanity into a sticky web which the Black Widow can feed upon. The woman and the beast are doomed to destruction. Their time is imminently near.

John (and us) must see beyond the surface presentation to the darkness within. Antichrist is not only a person but the evil systems which feed upon helpless humans caught in the web of seduction.

The End Times

The leaders of the earth, deceived and smitten by the temptress, ally together to wage war on all that is right, just, and good – all the while believing they are fighting for beauty. It will eventually climax at Armageddon, the place of final victory over all the malevolence.

The Lamb shall overcome the nefarious forces of corruption. The faithful followers of God need only to persevere and see the punishment of the wicked. Please keep in mind that none of this has a timetable for us to chart. Biblical time revolves primarily around events, not precision clockwork.

It is not our task to walk around predicting dates, nor is it to point fingers at anyone we don’t like as being the antichrist. There’s plenty of shock-and-awe in the Apocalypse of John without us adding to it with our half-baked ideas of the end times.

The world, as it presently exists, is distorted by sin. And we humans tend to be ill-equipped in discerning the difference between The Great Prostitute and Lady Wisdom. What the book of Revelation does for us is show, with alarming symbolism, just how difficult it can be to navigate this old fallen world.

So, let us run to God; trust in the Lamb; and be filled with the Spirit.

Sovereign God, you are slow to anger and abound in steadfast love. Grant to national leaders the wisdom, courage and insight needed for this time of change and uncertainty. Give to all who exercise authority determination to defend the principles of freedom, love and tolerance, strength to protect and safeguard the innocent and clarity of vision to guide the world into the paths of justice and peace. This we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Psalm 55:1-15 – Pray as First Response

God, listen to my prayer;
    don’t avoid my request!
Pay attention! Answer me!
    I can’t sit still while complaining.
    I’m beside myself
        over the enemy’s noise,
        at the wicked person’s racket,
        because they bring disaster on me
        and harass me furiously.

My heart pounds in my chest
    because death’s terrors have reached me.
Fear and trembling have come upon me;
    I’m shaking all over.
I say to myself,
    I wish I had wings like a dove!
    I’d fly away and rest.
    I’d run so far away!
    I’d live in the desert.
    I’d hurry to my hideout,
    far from the rushing wind and storm.

Baffle them, my Lord!
    Confuse their language
    because I see violence and conflict in the city.
Day and night they make their rounds on its walls,
    and evil and misery live inside it.
Disaster lives inside it;
    oppression and fraud never leave the town square.

It’s not an enemy that is insulting me—
    I could handle that.
It’s not someone who hates me
    who is exalted over me—
    I could hide from them.
No. It’s you, my equal,
    my close companion, my good friend!
It was so pleasant when
    together we entered God’s house with the crowd.

Let death devastate my enemies;
    let them go to the grave alive
        because evil lives with them—
        even inside them! (Common English Bible)

We all likely know he modern day proverb, “The squeaky wheel gets oiled.” The saying is often used in reference to someone who is loud, even obnoxious, about what they want. 

In today’s psalm, David cannot avoid the squeaky wheel. There are people in his face and all up in his grill. The only thing we know about David’s enemies from the psalm is that they were nursing a grudge against him about something. David was hurt and betrayed.

So, David prayed. He pleaded with God to hear his prayer – to not hide from his plea for mercy. David desperately wanted the Lord to respond to his terrible plight. He couldn’t sleep. He had racing thoughts. He was hyper-vigilant. He was downright anxious. David felt the ache of people speaking against him. For whatever reason, they had an axe to grind and were determined to make David’s life difficult.

Although, like David, we sometimes feel like flying away and being at rest from the turmoil, we must deal with the insults, the false rhetoric, and half-truths of others. 

The way David confronted the problem was primarily through prayer. Whenever David prayed, it was never a quick on-the-run sort of prayer to God in the rush of dealing with all his kingly duties. Instead, David offered specific, agonizing, timely prayers, asking, even begging God to not let the violent speech and actions of his enemies prevail.

David was committed to maintaining peace, equity, and justice in the public square. In those times when injustice reared it’s ugly head, David’s first response was to pray.

Out of the range of possibilities we might do in response to slander, gossip, backbiting, threats, and general sins of the tongue against us, prayer needs to be the primary tool to face it all. Heartfelt, passionate, detailed, and pointed prayers can and must be offered to the God who hears the righteous in their grief. 

If you are in such a position of being oppressed by another, a sage way to begin addressing the situation is through praying the very same psalm that David did when he was under duress.

The biblical psalms are prayers which are meant to be prayed as our own. There is no such thing as praying them too often. It is always open season on praying the psalms for our own contemporary purposes.

The prayers are more than personal. They are public, as well. Violence, strife, iniquity, trouble, oppression, fraud, and injustice effect the entire community. Our prayers can and must include asking God to put an end to all this awful muck.

It’s one thing to have some schmuck we’ve never met make a disparaging social media comment against us, or some random persons spout baseless lies. And it’s quite another thing when it is someone close to us, a trusted friend who turns on us.

God cares about our adverse situations. Unlike fickle friends, the Lord is a faithful companion who will neither leave us nor forsake us. The New Testament affirms and encourages prayer to God in anxious times:

God cares for you, so turn all your worries over to him.

1 Peter 5:7, CEV

Jesus modeled a life of prayer in response to injustice, suffering, and belligerence.

“Into your hands I entrust my life.” (Luke 23:46, CEB)

“I don’t ask you to take my followers out of the world but keep them safe from the evil one.” (John 17:15, CEB)

May we know that loneliness is far from us. God is with us, always and forever. Amen.   

Listening God, you hear the cries of the righteous. Give ear to my plea. I cry out to you for respite from those allayed against me.  I ask for justice in my life and in the public square so that the wicked and the unrighteous do not have their way in this world, through Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

James 4:8-17 – Make Wise Spiritual Resolutions

Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.

Brothers and sisters do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against a brother or sister or judges them speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you—who are you to judge your neighbor?

Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil. If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them. (New International Version)

Resolve to Come Near to God

God is longingly looking out the window watching and waiting for us to come home (Luke 15:11-32). And when we are seen, God will run and come near to us.

We can come to God morning, noon, and night; when things are good and when they are bad. God gives generously to all without finding fault if we will but come near. (James 1:5)

When my oldest daughter was a small child, her bike was stolen. When she discovered it was gone, we sat down together in the backyard and came to God and prayed. I barely finished praying, we both looked up, and a police cruiser pulled up in the alley behind our house. The officer rolled down his window and said, “Hey, are you missing a bike?” 

We hopped in the back of the cruiser and the officer took us to a place where someone had ditched the bike. It was a tremendous lesson to both my daughter and I that when we come to God, God comes to us. I realize life doesn’t always work that way, yet we can be assured God listens, hears, and will respond.

Resolve to Wash Your Hands

We cannot approach God with blood on our hands. We need to come squarely facing our guilt and shame. God wants us to admit our guilt, confess it as such, receive forgiveness, and deal with matters of restitution, reconciliation, or making amends.

Look at what this very experience of godly sadness has produced in you: such enthusiasm, what a desire to clear yourselves of blame, such indignation, what fear, what purpose, such concern, what justice! (2 Corinthians 7:11, CEB)

Resolve to Purify Your Heart

Whereas the previous resolution was more external, this one addresses the inner person, the heart. Not only do our actions need to be cleaned up through washing our hands (repentance) our attitudes need cleansing, as well. 

Our hearts cannot be devoted to two masters. Double-minded persons need to become single-minded with pure, not mixed, motives.

“The man who tries to walk two roads will split his pants.”

African Proverb

Resolve to Grieve

God blesses those people who grieve. They will find comfort! (Matthew 5:4, CEV)

Any significant change or loss creates grief. And it is necessary to grieve. Grief is not an event but a process. Everyone’s grief is intensely personal and has its own timetable. It is not crazy, selfish, or unspiritual to grieve.  In fact, it is biblical.

The only way to get on the other side of grief is by telling your story. Sharing with each other, giving testimony to God’s grace, and expressing emotion is important. There cannot be healing apart from grief and lament.

Resolve to Mourn

Mourning is the emotional response to how terrible our fallen world is and can be, and how much we really need God.  It is to see that sin in all of its foulness and degradation is horrible and destroys everything it touches.

People who do not or cannot mourn are hard-hearted. They need deep spiritual transformation. By his wounds we are healed.

Resolve to Wail

We are actually commanded to cry – more than cry – to wail.  Whereas mourning might be more private and personal, wailing is more public.

I believe one of the greatest tragedies in today’s modern church is that Christians can become so focused on victory that they end up crying alone. Nobody should ever have to cry by themselves. Weep with those who weep. If there ever was an appropriate place for crying, it should be amongst likeminded brothers and sisters.

Resolve to Change

In the face of immense human need in this world, there must be change. We cannot turn the clock back to a more bygone idyllic era. We are here, now, together on spaceship Earth. We must come to grips with the kind of change needed to live above petty human degradation.

I once had a discussion with a young woman about heaven and hell. When we first started conversing, she expressed the desire to be in the place that had the better party going on. By the time we finished talking, she was grieving, mourning, and crying. I never knew what became of her – I even forget her name now. But once she got just a glimpse of sin’s gravity, it completely undid her.

Resolve to Be Humble

Humility is the path to intimacy with God and one another. The paradox is that through grieving, mourning, and wailing we become joyful and experience God. Through suffering there is glory. Being last makes us first.  Entering through the narrow gate brings us into the broad open space of eternal life.

Resolve to Not Slander One Another

To slander means to “speak against” or “speak down” to someone. Slander always contains false information based on bogus observations and misinterpretations. To intentionally tear-down another person either to their face or to other people is slander.

People sometimes believe they have a right to speak against another person. That really says more about the slanderer than the slandered. Slander is a spirit of retaliation and revenge. It is being self-righteous and acting as the judge.

Resolve to Not Be Judgmental

A critical and condemning spirit breaks the biblical law of love and declares itself the authority. It wrongheadedly believes it knows best for everyone.

When we put our focus on others and do not deal with our own critical spirit, we play God. That is not our job. 

Never pay back evil with more evil. Do things in such a way that everyone can see you are honorable. Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone. Dear friends, never take revenge. Leave that to the righteous anger of God. For the Scriptures say,

“I will take revenge;
    I will pay them back,”
    says the Lord.

Instead,

“If your enemies are hungry, feed them.
    If they are thirsty, give them something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap
    burning coals of shame on their heads.”

Don’t let evil conquer you but conquer evil by doing good (Romans 12:17-21, NLT)

Resolve to Have God in Your Plans

Some folks plan and map out their lives without a consideration of what God wants. They hold back on God, only giving partial effort and resources. And this can happen to any of us. We may not all have money and power, but we all have time, and how we use our time says a lot about our faith.

Jesus said we cannot serve both God and money (Matthew 6:24). In God’s economy, money is a tool to be used to meet needs and bless others. However, many persons tend to make audacious plans with money by accumulating debt and presuming they can pay it off; encouraging their kids to get high paying jobs as their highest objective; and, relying on the market economy to provide for them in the end. 

Money and making plans are good. Yet, the almighty dollar is not to be the motivating factor in our lives, and God needs to be squarely in the middle of all that we do.

So, resolve to embrace the virtue of humility – considering both others and God in making plans and decisions. For if we fail to do what we know we ought, our guilt will eventually catch up to us. Better to rely on God’s grace and make necessary changes.

Holy One, you are eternal, ever-present, and boundless in love. Yet there are times when we fail to recognize you in our daily lives. Sometimes shame clenches our hearts, and we hide our true feelings. Sometimes fear makes us small, and we miss the chance to speak from our strength. Sometimes doubt invades our hopefulness, and we degrade our own wisdom. In the daily round from sunrise to sunset, remind us again of your holy presence hovering near us and in us. Free us from shame and self-doubt. Help us to see you in the moment-by-moment possibilities to live honestly and to act courageously, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Psalm 1 – Choose Real Happiness

The truly happy person
    doesn’t follow wicked advice,
    doesn’t stand on the road of sinners,
    and doesn’t sit with the disrespectful.
Instead of doing those things,
    these persons love the Lord’s Instruction,
    and they recite God’s Instruction day and night!
They are like a tree replanted by streams of water,
    which bears fruit at just the right time
    and whose leaves don’t fade.
        Whatever they do succeeds
.

That’s not true for the wicked!
    They are like dust that the wind blows away.
And that’s why the wicked will have no standing in the court of justice—
    neither will sinners
    in the assembly of the righteous.
The Lord is intimately acquainted
    with the way of the righteous,
    but the way of the wicked is destroyed. (Common English Bible)

True happiness happens when we conform to disciplines of a good life and eschew practices that go against the grain of goodness. That statement might be a bit difficult to accept. Frankly, it is for me, and I wrote it.

You see, I’m not much of a conformity sort of guy. I like creatively doing my own thing, man. Bucking the system and questioning the rules is just something I do. Conformity tends to have a negative connotation with me – like a group of unthinking lemmings running off a cliff to their death.

Yet, the truth is that, although there is a wide range of creative choices we have for most everything, we as humans best function and discover happiness when we are in sync with our Creator. So, we can choose to ignore our foundational human hard-wiring, or we can live into it as the unique individuals we are.

Those two ways of shaping our lives are the path of the righteous and the path of the wicked. The way of the righteous leads to human flourishing, relational connection, and a vast spiritual life. Alternatively, the way of the wicked leads to human degeneration, disconnection from others, and spiritual death. It is to be out of sync with who we are as people.

Distinguishing between the righteous and the wicked is not always as easy as it looks. Only at the end of the age, when the Day of Judgment comes, will we know for certain the righteous and the wicked.

The magisterial Reformer of the sixteenth-century, Martin Luther, framed the two opposing ways as the theology of the cross and the theology of glory. The cross of Christ is G-d’s attack on human sin. Through being crucified with Christ, we find the way to human flourishing and life. It is the narrow road of grace.

A theology of glory is seeking to be radically independent – to rely primarily, perhaps even exclusively, on our own laurels and personal way of doing things. Although these might appear to be outwardly fine, they feed and water themselves from a wicked stream, devoid of grace.

Whenever we place our complete trust in self and forsake faith in something or someone outside of ourselves, it is a highway to the grave.

It is far too easy to place faith in our good works and to do good so that others will observe our goodness, rather than doing them out of the good soil of being planted in ancient and wise instruction.

Embracing tried and true practices of righteousness; delighting in G-d’s law; meditating on sound instruction; privately pouring over the large body of wisdom we have available to us; and diligently seeking to put it all into action is the way of good people who shall surely realize human happiness. They will yield gracious fruit. They will know blessing.

Joyful are people of integrity,
    who follow the instructions of the Lord.
Joyful are those who obey his laws
    and search for him with all their hearts.

Psalm 119:1-2, NLT

Serving only to be seen; seeking public accolades and personal recognition as a sole motivator; and disrespecting others to prop up individual respect is the way of the wicked. They don’t bother to consult the ancient ways of happiness. Instead, they pridefully believe they know what is best.

“You’re like manicured grave plots, grass clipped and the flowers bright, but six feet down it’s all rotting bones and worm-eaten flesh. People look at you and think you’re saints, but beneath the skin you’re total frauds.” (Matthew 23:27-28, MSG)

Abundance, generosity, gentleness, and grace marks the righteous because G-d is abundantly gracious and generous. Jesus is the gentle shepherd who mercifully and lovingly leads anxious sheep to the quiet pastures of settled happiness. Indeed, the Lord watches over the way of the righteous.

Only looking out for number one, stinginess, withholding good, hoarding, and angry criticism identifies the wicked. They have judgment in their future because they add no value to the great needs of humanity. Unhappiness is their lot.

We have choices. We can choose conformity to established patterns of godly instruction and happiness – or we can choose to rely solely on our own ingenuity and/or brawn to eke out a morsel of satisfaction.

Choose wisely, my friends.

O Holy Wisdom, direct us on your path. Make us worthy of your teachings and open our hearts to accept your embrace, that we may serve you in peace and grace. Amen.