Summary: The process of remaking creation is dangerous; Jesus is the high ground who leads us out of harm;s way.
The last time we opened the book of Revelation we saw the angels with their sleeves rolled up, rubber gloves and waders on, and pails full of ammonia and Clorox, finally ready to disinfect creation before the Holy One takes up permanent residence on site. “Then one of the four living creatures gave the seven angels seven golden bowls full of the wrath of God, who lives forever and ever; and the temple was filled with smoke from the glory of God and from his power, and no one could enter the temple until the seven plagues of the seven angels were ended.” [Rev 15:7-8] That’s how chapter 15 ends. In this chapter we see the angels actually at work. It’s pretty spectacular. The images are vivid and frightening.
You may remember that in previous chapters we saw a variety of woes and plagues, sent as warnings, to remind people to turn away from their wicked ways and consider the just claims of God on their lives. In each one of those instances only part of the earth and sea, only part of the plants and animals, only one third of the sun and the moon and the people were destroyed. There was still room to
maneuver, still time to decide, still places to hide from the awful reality, still time to pretend that the DANGER signs posted all over the facility were really meant for someone else..
But now the time has run out. The sirens have gone off, the evacuation teams have abandoned the site. The demolition angels are ready to move in.
There is, of course, widespread disagreement as to what part of these visions should be taken literally, and which parts should be taken symbolically or allegorically or metaphorically, and which parts should be taken literally. I know that this is a confusing book, and so I want to make it clear that the answer to the question “Is this part literal or symbolic?” is “Yes.” Not much help, is it? What I mean by that is I think that these images are a combination of the two.
The bowls, of course, are symbolic. They show us that God’s wrath is contained, controlled, confined until the proper time. It doesn’t just slop around the universe creating a randomly toxic environment; Their contents are also symbolic. Nor is God’s wrath a sort of cosmic Mr. Clean or PineSol, although I’ve added my own
metaphorical twist which suggests as much, because that’s the effect it has. God’s wrath is not, in fact, either a thing or an emotion. It is a force, a power, an energy which by its very nature burns and destroys all things that are hostile to God.
What is not symbolic or metaphorical is the fact that every single part of creation will be subject to the cleansing action of God’s angels. What is not metaphorical is the fact that once everything that is hostile to God has been burned away, God’s power will never more be experienced as wrath, but only as life and love and wholeness and joy.
What does it tell us is that every single piece of creation will have to be transformed before it is restored to the complete goodness God’s of original creative intention.
Paul tells us that “creation waits with eager longing ... in hope [it] will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” [Romans 8:19,21] Nowadays it’s fashionable in some circles nearly to worship the earth, calling it Gaia, mother earth, and maintaining against all evidence that anything that is natural is good. But we know that is not so. “Nature
red in tooth and claw” as the English poet Tennyson put it, is as full of flaws and dangers, disappointments and death as any human institution. Isaiah tells us that God’s original intention was, and the final state of creation will be, peace between all species, that
“The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder's den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.” [Is 11:6-9]
You may remember that both Hebrew and Greek used numbers symbolically. Well, the number four usually refers to refers to the created order. And that’s true here as well. The first four bowls the angels pour out are for the cleansing - the remaking - of creation.