Ukraine. Gaza. Iraq. The last few weeks have brought chilling news on a regular basis: pictures of grieving families with children being massacred. The persecution of Christians and other minorities in the Islamic State has mostly happened away from cameras but the reports of beheadings and crucifixions are hard to read and comprehend. A number of us in the church here were talking together last week and confessing that we find it hard to know how to respond. How do you begin to pray about all of this? As it happened, both our sermons yesterday had praising God as a significant application. But how do you praise when you see and hear such news?
A few months ago, I found myself lecturing on Revelation for FIEC’s PfS course. This was something of a challenge in that I’ve only ever preached occasional sermons from this letter: I’ve not preached through it all. And, to be honest, the sermons I have preached have tended to come from the more familiar material in the opening and closing chapters. But it was good for me to get to grips with the middle chapters. Like many others, I am convinced that the middle chapters are a repeated cycle taking us through history until the Lord’s return. So you have seven seals opened climaxing with all nations before the throne worshipping the Lamb. Seven trumpets sound until the Lord Almighty and his Messiah are seen to reign. Seven bowls are poured out before the Lord comes as a thief. In other words there are a series of accounts of history each climaxing with the Lord’s return.
The new thought that struck me as I prepared the material was just how graphic the descriptions of history were. The opening of the seals unleashes the sword, famine and plague. The martyrs in heaven looking at the way in which Christians are persecuted cry out, “How long Sovereign Lord until you judge?”. The trumpets bring death and woe. The story for God’s people is a challenging one. In chapter 13, the beast wages war against God’s people and conquers them. “If anyone is to go into captivity, into captivity they will go. If anyone is to be killed with the sword, with the sword they will be killed,” says the Lord of His people. It is not for nothing that one of the promises of the new creation is that the Lord will wipe every tear from our eyes. He will need to because the expectation is that we will reach the new creation with tears in our eyes. Overall, having prepared the two lectures, my conclusion was that my expectation for life here on earth was wildly out of sync with the Bible- I have far too many expectations of ease and comfort.
The reason I am writing this is because there is a danger as we read the news of doubting the Lord’s control. The truth is that history seems to be playing itself out precisely as the Lord said that it would. It is just that we aren’t always good at recognising what He has said. Life here on earth involves violence, martyrdom and the people of God crying out “How long, O Lord?” The danger is that we expect Iraq to be sorted and the world to become like the easy west. If I am reading Scripture rightly it is perhaps more likely that the experiences of Iraq become ours in the years to come.
Of course we must act. But what we also need is some clear thinking. What we need to know- and what we need to pray that our dear brothers and sisters know- is that this only makes sense from the perspective of the end. It only makes sense if the Lord is going to return. The fact that the Lord allows the evils of ISIS only makes sense if one day He will judge. The confusion of the rights and wrongs of Gaza will only make sense in the court of the One who is perfect. And the sufferings of Christians around the world will only make sense on the day when the Lord reassures them that, having overcome, they have the right to eat from the tree of life in the paradise of God. The Lord’s workings in history only make sense if one day He will put it all right. But He will.
Which is why, as we watch the news, we pray that, above all else, Christians will be given the grace to endure for endurance is the key mark of the believer in Revelation. And we will cry out alongside the martyrs “How long Sovereign Lord?” And we will pray for the only solution which will finally end the wars and the famines- “Come Lord Jesus.”