The Frogs of War (Revelation 16:13-14)

Revelation is a strange book. Apocalyptic and poetic, full of cryptic signs and mysterious symbols, it presents a Prophetic Reality view of the world, a veil lifted on the nuts and bolts of human life to reveal dragons and monsters, many-headed behemoths and war in heaven. It’s difficult to comprehend, and perhaps that’s why so many debate whether it’s about the past or the future; whatever the truth of that, however, it remains that Revelation has something to say in the here and now.

Take Revelation 16:13-14. The great antagonists of the apocalypse,  the False Prophet, the Antichrist and the Dragon, suddenly spew forth ‘unclean spirits’, spirits that perform miracles and bend kings to their will and bizarrely look like frogs.

They’re the media wing and propaganda arm of the apocalypse. And something about the image freaks me out. I mean, frogs? Is that because frogs are an unclean animal in Jewish thought? Is it because they capture their prey with their tongues (which is a pretty concise definition of propagandists)? A reference to Egyptian gods and the Plagues of Egypt? In ancient thought, frogs were associated with coarseness, or thought to be poisonous. Maybe their use in Revelation relates to all four.

But let’s take a step back from the language and symbology. The frogs are ultimately a message, a message of false religion, hateful politics and general fear and accusation. The message is antichrist in its most literal sense – against Christ.

So the frogs are media and memes, propaganda and psyops, static that drowns out the words of God. And those forces are on the move, just like they’ve always been: snaking through the Garden, tempting in the wilderness, leaping towards Armageddon.

So when someone calls you to hate your neighbour, don’t listen; if someone tells you to cast the first stone, put it down; if the voice doesn’t sound like Jesus, ask yourself why.

Because the world feels like it’s on the brink of…something. Strange metaphorical creatures are on the move, doves and chaos monsters, the frogs of war. In times like this, when forces herd us towards war (whether that’s with guns and bombs or Twitter accounts and dark words), when so many competing voices constantly teeter on the edge of conflict, all I can do is turn back to the Gospel,  to reclaim the words in red and pray to hear the voice of Christ above a cacophony of croaking. The frogs of war are out there; we don’t have to follow them into the abyss.

Christ the King (Revelation 5)

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The Bible, rich with symbolism, paints many pictures of kings and kingdoms, some of them nightmarish and bizarre; huge, grotesque monsters emerge from the ocean to dominate the earth, their armies sweeping across the globe like so many twisted, mutant locusts. It’s fair to say that, when it comes to kins, the Bible is ambiguous to say the least.

And yet despite this, there’s an image of kingship that is both simple and earth-shattering in its implications. It appears in the midst of Revelation’s monsters and mayhem, but it’s far from being part of that chaos – the opposite in fact.

We’re introduced to the ultimate king, the holy king, the good king, and while all the other empires have been described with imagery from a Japanese monster movie, the great king is actually a lamb – a slain lamb at that. And I think we’re supposed to react to the contrast, be thrown for a moment at the apparent power differential – Godzilla vs a lamb? What’s going on here?

And then we remember that the lamb on the throne is Jesus, and all our categories for power and kingship and empire have to change in the face of a bleeding sacrifice that nevertheless sits on a throne and is worshiped by multitudes of angels. It’s an image that should inform and subvert all our other images of Jesus: if he’s a king, then how does he rule? If he’s a warrior, whose blood is shed? The lamb on the throne helps answer those questions, even if those answers turn out to be a challenge.

But we can’t hide among metaphors: these images need to change what we look like in the here and now. After all, if we’re inhabitants of a different Kingdom, we should echo a different king, and that affects how we think about everything, from our politicians, to the people next door to the wildlife that surrounds us. All of those interactions need to be rooted in Christ – not a cultural facsimile branded with a winking caricature of Jesus but in Christ the king, with discourse inspired more by the Sermon on the Mount than the media.

Today we remember the king on his throne, but we also remember that this king acted more like a servant than a warrior, and inaugurated his kingdom through death on a cross. Maybe today’s a good day to seek a vision for what that kingdom needs to look like in the life of each individual disciple.

The Scars of God (John 20:24-29; Revelation 5:6)

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Sometimes we miss the scandal of Christianity.

It’s shocking enough to say that God became human, that the creator and sustainer of the universe contracted and limited and incarnated himself, not as a warrior-king but as a baby. The Almighty had to learn how to walk and talk, had to learn to read stories in which he was intimately involved, had to be dressed and fed and washed.

The Son of God had to be potty trained. How shocking is that?

That was his childhood of course, and childish things would be put aside to follow a path that lead to the cross. We know this story, know that it ends with resurrection, Jesus returning in a body that seems both spirit and flesh and blood. It’s this resurrection that demonstrates triumph over death.

And yet look at Jesus’s encounter with a doubting Thomas; while Jesus is back from the dead, he still carries scars. They could have been healed, but they remain.

This isn’t just an interesting fact about what happens when someone comes back from the dead. This becomes a fundamental part of Jesus’s identity. When John’s having his apocalyptic vision in Revelation 5, a great and mighty figure is introduced, the Lion of Judah, the Root of David. We’re lead to expect some powerful warrior sitting on the throne; instead we get a slaughtered lamb, but a slaughtered lamb with power over all creation.

This is intrinsic to the gospel story, and points to the scars of suffering and sacrifice as being fundamental to Christ’s identity; Revelation, all about Jesus as king, portrays him as slaughtered rather than slaughterer. In John ‘s gospel, those scars are sufficient to prove that he is who he says he is. These aren’t battle scars either, at least not how we might understand that; sure, Jesus won the battle over death, but that was through his sacrifice, not war, through changing the game rather than playing by its rules. A God with scars turns the world upside down.

No, wait: a God with scars turns the world right-side up.

Jesus stands in solidarity with those who suffer, with those who have been hurt and abused, with those pushed to the sidelines, with those beaten and battered and bruised. And, because these scars are self-sacrificial, they also speak of love and compassion.

The scars of God aren’t a blasphemous anomaly, they’re a part of who he is. And that’s shocking but also hopeful: God is with us. Even when the knives are out, even when the war is raging, we’ll know the King through the scars on his hands.

Hollywood Bible #3: Ghostbusters

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I refuse to believe that Ghostbusters came out when I was seven. There’s no way it was released thirty years ago. That just makes me feel old.

After all these years, after all the times I’ve sat there quoting along with Bill Murray and Rick Moranis, I never noticed that they misquote the Bible. Sure, Ray says he’s reciting Revelation 7:12, he’s actually a chapter out. It’s Revelation 6:12 that talks about earthquakes and the sun turning black and darkness covering the earth. It’s a pretty apocalyptic passage, the sort of thing you expect from Revelation. After all, it’s the End Of The World book, the one that’s full of monsters and disasters and the disintegration of society. That’s why it gets used in movies like Ghostbusters.

But the misquote points to a different slant on Revelation; 6:12 is a hymn of praise and worship and celebration: “Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and strength be to our God for ever and ever.” It’s not the sort of thing you expect to hear during Armageddon, when a giant marshmallow monster is stomping on your church.

But then Revelation is a weird book. It’s apocalyptic literature, so weird comes with the territory. The book starts out with letters to seven churches around Asia Minor and then things get crazy – visions of angels and destruction, a collapsed timeline that sometimes feels like it’s talking about historical events and other times seems to be talking about the future. Images shift – a lion becomes a lamb within the space of two verses, and martial imagery of swords and blood gets subverted. It’s currently fashionable to interpret Revelation in a somewhat reductionist way (“x means y, and that’s why z is obviously the antichrist!”), but the reality feels slipperier. It’s not even a book about the End of the World, because in the end Heaven and Earth are reborn.

So maybe we can forgive Ray his misquote – Revelation has confused as many theologians as it has parapsychologists. And even in mis-speaking he becomes a prophet; he and Winston may be having a portentous conversation about how the end is all kinds of nigh, but unwittingly they point to a verse that’s about the triumph of a good God and the destruction of evil. That’s probably a good thing to hold on to next time you’re riding into battle with the forces of evil.

All that said, my favourite line is still: “Listen! Do you smell something?”…

Living for the City (Genesis 13, Hebrews 11:8-10)

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Do I like cities?

I ask myself that every time I find myself in one. See, on the one hand I hate being crowded and shoved around. I hate the traffic. I hate the lack of convenient toilet facilities.

On the other hand, I like the quirky book shops and the unexpected expressions of culture, and I love the moments of hidden history when you turn a corner and discover, say, that you’re standing on top of an abandoned underground station. And the same factors that make all these things possible also exacerbate the claustrophobia and the dangerous driving. Do I like cities?

It’s complicated.

Maybe that’s why I like the idea that the writer of Genesis had a similar problem. After all, the whole thing starts with paradise and then goes rapidly downhill, with cities being a symptom of that. Those who remain nomadic, herdsmen, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, they’re the ones who walk with God. Even when the Hebrews end up living in Egypt they’re kept apart because the Egyptians hate shepherds. Those who settle, however…

Well, look at who founds cities. Cain. The descendants of Noah’s cursed son. The inhabitants of Babel. It’s going too far to suggest that cities are inherently sinful, but Genesis seems to be suggesting they can be places of compromise and, yes, flat out evil.

The classic example is the moment when Abraham and his nephew Lot go their separate ways. Abraham has already been prompted to leave one city, Ur, to follow God, and life as a nomadic shepherd has turned out to be blessed. But now he’s getting too successful; there’s not enough room for his flocks and those of Lot, so they decide to split up. And Lot makes the pragmatic (if a little self-serving) decision to move to the Plain of Jordan, which has abundant water supplies…

“…Like the Garden of The Lord.”

And that’s where the red flag goes up, because it sounds like everyone is trying to get back to Eden, to reclaim the Garden of The Lord without The Lord. And so Lot goes where the water is and pitched his tents near Sodom. You know, the place where feral mobs gang rape strangers.

Inevitably, things go bad.

But here’s the interesting thing: Abraham’s looking for a city too, but he’s not trying to build it; he’s waiting for God to do that. The writer of Hebrews, centuries later, says that “he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.”

It’s not cities that are inherently problematic, it’s living without God.

Hebrews really riffs on this. Abraham was looking forward to a specific city, the Heavenly Jerusalem, of which the earthly Jerusalem was the symbolic precursor. Heck, there might be something of this in how the only king Abraham plays tribute to is Melchizedek, king of Salem, which not only foreshadows Jerusalem but, via Hebrews, the rule and priesthood of Christ himself.

So the city to which Abraham was looking, that Jerusalem echoed, that finally restores Eden in a way that Sodom never could, is the heavenly city of Revelation 21. And why is that?

Well, to quote John at the height of his vision:

“Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!”

Don’t live for the city, live for God. The city is not salvation, and only Christ makes all things new.