The story starts with seven angels and seven trumpets. At the end of chapter 8, after four trumpets have blown, an eagle flies by, declaring, "Catastrophe! Catastrophe! Catastrophe!" referring, of course, to the final three angels and the last three trumpets. All this time, the disaster seems to have been building on itself, each trumpet blast bringing about a measure of misery worse than the last. We can only imagine what happens when we get to number seven.
The fifth angel blows his trumpet, and a star falls to earth and opens the bottomless pit. Smoke and fire pour out. Everything goes dark. Locusts swarm out of the pit (sound familiar, Egypt?). It certainly sounds like catastrophe. And so it is called. (9:12)
The sixth angel blows his trumpet, and the famous horsemen are released. With fire, smoke, and sulfur, they kill one-third of humanity. It is the fire and brimstone we worry so much about, the end-all to our Hell sermons. The consequences of not following God. It certainly sounds like catastrophe, even worse than locusts. And so it is called. (11:14)
I've got to tell you - at this point in the story, I don't know where we go from scary horsemen, horses with heads like lions and tails like snakes that with fire and brimstone destroy a full third of humanity. A third! Look around at your two best friends - one of you isn't here any more. What could be worse than this? What possible third catastrophe could come with the seventh angel? What's the worst that could happen?
When the seventh angel blew his trumpet, there were loud voices in heaven, saying, 'The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will rule as king forever and ever.' Then the 24 leaders, who were sitting on their thrones in God's presence, immediately bowed, worshiped God, and said, 'We give thanks to you, Lord God Almighty, who is and who was, because you have taken your great power and have begun ruling as king. The nations were angry, but your anger has come. The time has come for the dead to be judged: to reward your servants, the prophets, your holy people, and those who fear your name, no matter if they are important or unimportant, and to destroy those who destroy the earth.' God's temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his promise was seen inside his temple. There was lightning, noise, thunder, an earthquake, and heavy hail. (11:15-19)
So the final catastrophe - and the eagle has proclaimed it as such - the worst possible thing that could happen, the horrible of the horrible, the end of the end...is that God reveals Himself. Did I just read that right? Did you just read that right? The worst possible, worst imaginable catastrophe the world could ever know is that God shows up and He is who He says He is?
I guess it depends on which world you belong to.
As Christians, we say we look forward to this day. We can't wait for God to come back. Come on, now. Is that really true?
When God comes back, we're out of time. We're out of chances to get this righteousness thing right. We're out of tactics to delay His judgment. We're out of opportunities to somehow make ourselves holy. We're confronted with grace, and we have no choice but to surrender ourselves into His hands. He comes, and we have to actually give ourselves up. Wholly. Forever. When we kind of thought we might finally be getting on the right track.
When God comes back, we understand the depth of our lie. Because we finally see the depth of His truth. He really is. He simply is. All He said He would be, all He promised to be, all we fear He might be, all we hoped He was. He is. This is really happening. And we realize how short we lived of the true hope that this all could be.
When God comes back, we come face-to-face with the very thing we've worked our whole lives to forget - our humanity. We stand toe-to-toe with our need for a God, and we understand our resistance and our defiance. And we can't help but be ashamed. Crushed under the weight of our own fallenness.
Have you ever played a game, or perhaps watched a game, where one team was fighting so valiantly for a comeback win? Where they were so close to scoring that much-needed last point and then...time ran out? It's deflating. It's defeating. It leaves this bitter taste in your mouth.
That is us in this final day. Time's up. It's over. This world is all gone. We fell just short. We never made it back. There's this bitter taste in our mouths.
I have the privilege of standing beside persons in their last moments of life. There is an overwhelming sense of these very types of failures at death. The way people look back on their lives and think about the things they did, the things they didn't do, the ones they wish they had, the ones they with they hadn't. They look back on all that was and all that could have been and all that should have been, and in these final moments, far too many of us are filled with regret. On this day, when the seventh angel blows his trumpet, we are all filled with that regret and that overwhelming sense of time wasted, time fallen short.
That's a catastrophe.
But only for a short while. Because, as I began this week, God stands ready to redeem. He holds in His hand a stone, upon which is written our new name. Our new name, which is written in the Book of Life, opens Heaven's gates. Our old name is thrown into Hell, and then with Hell, thrown into the fiery lake. It's all over. It's kind of disastrous, in one sense.
Absolutely glorious in another.