The following weeks were spent wrestling with Revelation 12 and seeking guidance from those who blazed that trail before me which confirmed the thoughts I already had.
My sermon was titled “Advent Joy: The End of Evil.” Then Friday happened. The Connecticut shoot that has left us all shocked and perplexed and asking questions that have no answer. A sermon proclaiming the demise of evil in the shadow of an evil act that boiled over into the forethoughts of everyone’s mind.
The question everyone is asking, though no one expects an answer, is why would anybody do that? how could we let that happened? and perhaps most worrisome of all, where was God?
John’ apocalyptic letter was written in a time of great persecution and evil. It was a time when men, women and children were being slaughtered without mercy. It was a time when people where wondering where God was. If Jesus is on his throne, then why is evil continuing to reign?
Chapter twelve is a summary answer to that question. It depicts a pregnant woman clothed with the sun, the moon under her feet and twelve stars around her head (Israel, cf. Gen.37:9); her child is the Messiah who is born and immediately raptured up to the throne of God (cf. Rev. 19:5, Ps. 2:9); the dragon is Satan (“the serpent of old,” cf. 12:9) who tries to destroy the child. After the child is raptured to God’s throne a war rages between angelic beings and the dragon and his forces who are defeated and cast down to the earth. A victory song is sung proclaiming the victory, Kingdom and authority of Christ and the saints who over came by the blood of the Lamb and the word of their testimony. The song ends on a minor note with a woe to the earth because the dragon has come down to us in fury “because his time is short.”
The most glaring omission of this narrative is any reference to the penal substitutionary death of Christ on the cross. In fact the narrative jumps from his incarnation to his glorification. Now the cross is not absent from the scene completely because in the victory song we read these lyrics, “They overcame him by the blood of the Lamb…“
I found this emphasis of John to be of particular interest. Today the evangelical church of North America is determine to emphasize the penal substitutionary death of Christ to the point of suggesting that to emphasize any other atonement motif would be to undermine the Gospel in some way. Then we wonder why we are so ill-equipped to handle evil when our society faces it head on as we did last Friday. I think N.T. Wright nails it in Evil and the Justice of God when he writes:
“We have tended to see “atonement theology” in one box (as having to do with personal salvation from personal sin), and “the problem of evil,” including so-called natural evil and the general wickedness of the world, in another box.”
I find it even more fascinating that Gustaf Aulen, in his historical study of atonement theories, shows how the Christians of the first few centuries held predominately to a view of the atonement he calls “Christus Victor.” The first three centuries were marked by a persecuted church in need of an answer to the question of why evil was continuing to rule this world. Revelation was written to offer something of an answer and so, in a large part, John’s apocalyptic letter crystallized a side of the cross that the evangelical church today widely undervalues (cf. 1 John 3:8; John 1:29; Rom. 6:9).
For the first half of history as evil ruled, it’s villainous serpent-king obsessed himself with the task of destroying the child of the prophecy. After the cross, the decisive victory in the war on evil, that serpent-king is more dangerous than ever. That’s what John says.
“But woe to the earth and the sea,
because the devil has gone down to you!
He is filled with fury,
because he knows that his time is short.”
That last line is important to the story. See before the Messiah came the Dragon had everything to lose. But after the Messiah came, after the decisive battle was won, the Dragon has nothing to lose. And that makes him more dangerous then ever. It all boils down to this: “he knows that his time is short.” In other words, he knows he is defeated. Evil has been dealt with. Satan is chained up (Rev. 20:2, cf. Matt. 16:19) meaning he is limited because God’s Kingdom is forcefully moving forward (Matt. 11:12) and pressing hard against the gates of hell (Matt. 16:18).
Evil will continue in this world of already but not yet, but it will not go unchecked. The church can overcome evil, with good (Rom. 12:21). Until Christ returns – which is the final thrust of the narrative and the keynote of Advent – he have this message from John:
“This calls for patient endurance and faithfulness on the part of the saints.” (Rev. 13:10)
We are all at a loss for words when we see specific acts of horror like that of the Connecticut shooting. We all need room to cope and to mourn. But we must seek some sort of comfort in the knowledge that evil reigns in large part today because it’s time is limited and it has ultimately been defeated. See, those who overcome evil do so, yes, by the blood of the Lamb and by doing good, but also by the word of their testimony.
And that is what Advent is. A testimony of the victory of God and the return of Christ. It is a call for patience endurance of this evil world as we await the triumphant return of Jesus. Until then, let us do our part to overcome evil with good always.