Sermon from December 12: The First Woe has Passed

“The first woe has passed.”
Advent III; December 12, 2021
Revelation 9:1-12

Note: This sermon was preached at the 8:00 service; if you look at the YouTube video of the 10:30 service for December 12, you will see our children’s musical presentation, “A Socially Distant Christmas.”

I remember reading a comedian’s description of the experience of influenza: one phrase that sticks with me is, “crawling across the bedroom floor, praying for nuclear war.” She felt so bad that she wanted the world to come to an end.

In the middle of this horrible experience of the “first woe,” John relates that those who suffer “will long to die, but death will flee from them.” Severe illness can do that to you, also when things go seriously wrong in your life.

John’s vision in Revelation includes a spiraling series of sevens: the seven spirits of God are an overall theme, then judgment comes in seven seals on the scroll, seven trumpets, seven thunders, and seven bowls of plague. Chapter nine is part of the cycle of the seven trumpets; the last three trumpets are described as the “three woes,” because an angel prefaced them by flying across the sky and crying out, “Woe, woe, woe to the inhabitants of the earth, at the blasts of the other trumpets that the three angels are about to blow!” (8:13) I read to you the “first woe;” I’ll take a moment to say a bit about it and then let’s see what connection you and I may have with it.

On the face of it, this is a plague of locusts. The last time locusts swarmed in Nebraska and devastated the landscape was in the 1930s, so we aren’t familiar with the experience. In North Africa and some other parts of the world locusts are still a threat, but not in North America. They come in thick clouds; they destroy everything in their sight. The Prophet Joel described a plague of locusts as a mighty army, conquering all. A single locust is no problem; when they swarm they are devastating and best described as a plague.

Yet these locusts are demonic. They have scorpions’ tails and human faces; they wear crowns of gold and they have the teeth of lions. Last week I mentioned the cartoonish quality of John’s descriptions: the images would all make sense to someone who knows the references. Let’s not sweat the details, just realize that we’re not simply talking about natural disaster here: John is describing a plague of pure, unbridled evil. The King of the Demonic Locusts is named Destruction; he is the angel of the abyss.

So, what shall we make of this? I am going to hold fast to what I said last week: this is not a photographic future history. Don’t look for an army of locusts with these features to descend upon the land to attack people, rather than crops, and to be selective about whom they attack. But what should we look for? And what should we do about it?

First, we should certainly look for the powers of evil to wreak destruction using natural forces. During our devotions at committee meetings the other evening, someone called attention to how many volcanic eruptions the earth has experienced lately. The end of the week deadly tornadoes struck five states in our nation. Is there some evil behind these? Or is it simply one of those things that happen? It has become undisputable that our changing climate is at least partly the result of human activity, and the failure to respond adequately is evil: it is the result of selfishness, or greed, or “I’m not going to change my ways” inertia. Now, please: don’t start labeling certain corporations or individuals or political parties as inherently evil; that is a mistake. But we know very well that human sin plays a role in at least some natural disasters. Sometimes our activity is part of the cause. Often our failure to plan or our failure to adapt leads to a failure to respond appropriately. Whether demonic or not, a plague of locusts is destructive.

But it is telling, and this is the second thing to call to your attention, that the locusts in John’s vision have a human face. Evil often has a human face. When a fifteen year-old boy shoots up a high school, he is not a monster: he is a boy. When parents give such a boy a gun for Christmas and ignore warning signs that it is a bad thing to do, they may be agents of evil. My friend – one of our elders – and I were talking the other day about the importance of the Church telling the truth. We are accustomed to governments lying to us for one reason or another, and corporations also frequently lie, but we want the Church to tell the truth even though most people would rather not hear the truth. In particular, we talked about the Vietnam War, and how our government and its agencies routinely lied about it. And when pastors spoke the truth to their congregations, they were attacked as being unpatriotic. Well, being blindly nationalistic is not better than telling the truth. At any rate, evil has a human face.

The third thing to say is that the evil forces in John’s vision attack only those who are not marked with the seal of God on their foreheads, presumably baptism. Now, baptism is not a magic elixir that protects us from the forces of evil, but baptism is the sign that we belong to God and that evil will not prevail over us. One example that comes to mind: Baptism reminds us that God forgive us; in my life, at least, the powers of destruction attack most ferociously as a voice inside me that reminds me of everything I’ve ever done wrong, going back to my childhood. Then Baptism reminds me that my wrong-doing does not destroy my salvation, because God forgives.

And those who bear the seal of God on their foreheads persevere. Rather than seek death, like the victims of the demonic locusts, they go on raising children and planting crops and working to see another sunrise. Evil does not defeat them.

So it continues through the remaining woes and through the remainder of John’s vision. But the first woe is past. As with everything else, the plague of locusts becomes a memory. John’s point with these woes, as you see later in the chapter, is that the human race still does not repent of their evil ways. They are still more focused on getting what they want than they are on doing what is best; they still serve the gods of gold and silver and bronze and stone and wood (9:20). Whether the human race as a whole will repent of our evil ways is more than we can predict. But those who have the seal of God on our foreheads can take the lead, tell the truth, call for repentance, change our own ways and persevere in hope.

Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
Omaha, Nebraska