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
For the three months since March 2020, we have been asking questions on this blog and in the church’s wider conversation about the impact of closing churches, live-streaming worship, re-opening churches, and how to persist in Christian practice in the midst of a global plague. One pointed contribution was an essay co-authored by Ephraim Radner and Philip Turner, in which they write:
In the midst of the ongoing COVID-19 lockdowns, many Christians feel exiled from their own churches, as indeed they are physically. This is hardly a brutal banishment as in past times of persecution, earthquake, and war. The effects of the present Time of the Virus are destructive enough in other ways, to be sure. But church buildings stand, priests, ministers, and bishops are in place and they still send their messages abroad. Yet it is all as if from afar, with most Christians watching, from across their quieted streets or on the screens, the distanced silhouettes of their churches, now barred, wondering what to do. How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?
They continue with a question that has remained with me throughout this time, “In the midst of plague the first question to which God directs our attention is not ‘what shall we do’ but what is God doing to and for us in the midst of this deadly pandemic?”
In the last week these questions have not gone away, but they have been superseded by a far more pressing and existentially-urgent concern brought again to the fore in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, and the light this casts on the murder of Ahmaud Arbery in February of this year.
This week the president stood for a photo op in front of a boarded-up St. John’s Episcopal Church holding what appeared to be a Bible, after police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse crowds (including members of the parish and clergy) protesting the deep injustices of our society. In that moment, the church was confronted by the question of what God is doing to and for the church in the midst of this pandemic; by the deep hypocrisy of our cultural relationship with the Bible; and by the oppression of black people. It brought to mind the 2015 mass murder of black Christians at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston.
Some churches have been closed by government bans against public gatherings. Some churches have been closed by their proximity to protest and tumult in the centuries-long struggle for justice for black lives that this nation has yet to achieve. Some have been closed because of violence to those who would worship there.
While we rightly consider how to “sing the Lord’s song in a strange land,” as the Israelites did in their exile after the destruction of Solomon’s Temple and the exile to Babylon, we have not fully considered whether we too are exiles, not by political accident or concern for safety from violence or disease, but by the providence and will of God.
In the time leading up to the destruction of Solomon’s Temple, Jeremiah the prophet warned people that seventy years of captivity were coming to God’s people. These seven decades were more than a neat symbolic number of 10 sevens. The way 2 Chron 36 tells the story, these seventy years would be a forced sabbatical, a restoration of what had been neglected. The burning of the Temple, the breach of the wall in Jerusalem, the desecration of the vessels reserved for the worship of God, all came about “to fulfill the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah, until the land had made up for its sabbaths. All the days that it lay desolate it kept sabbath, to fulfill seventy years” (2 Chron 36:21, NRSV).
The Law of Moses had commanded taking Sabbath days from work every seventh day, Sabbath years from growing crops every seven years, and a year of jubilee every 49 years (seven sevens) to redeem people from debts and slavery and to bring rest to the people and land (Lev 25:1–17). The system was a reminder of God’s providence, a forced dependence on God’s care, observed in rest. Even more than this, though, this was a command to justice for all the people in the land: “You shall not cheat one another, but you shall fear your God; for I am the LORD your God” (Lev 25:17, NRSV).
In Revelation 15, John’s vision comes after another vision of great bloodshed and death. Many died in what the words of the seer describes as a great “reaping” in Rev 14:16: “So the one who sat on the cloud swung his sickle over the earth, and the earth was reaped.” Blood of the dead flowed from the great winepress of the wrath of God “as high as a horse’s bridle, for a distance of about two hundred miles” (Rev 14:20).
What comes next? “Then I saw another portent in heaven, great and amazing: seven angels with seven plagues, which are the last, for with them the wrath of God is ended” (Rev 15:1). Angels, clothed in glorious robes with sashes across their torsos, like deacons in the worship of the high altar, offer not bread and wine, nor incense, nor the flesh of sacrifice, but plague to the worship of God:
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).
Without suggesting that we live in a moment that has a one-to-one correspondence to some timetable of the apocalypse presented in Revelation, I have nevertheless been struck by the resonance of this last verse with the present moment.
The temple is closed to all by plague. All, except the glory of God. Amidst all the violence, all the injustice, the treading of the winepress of wrath, and the plague, there is (for once!) peace in the temple because no one but God is there.
The Chronicler saw the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple as a restoration of justice and a gift of rest to the land. We watch videos of black people murdered and cities catch fire with the longing for justice, and we wonder on that same Sunday morning when we might open the doors of our churches so things can return to normal. These plagues have not yet come to their end.
When God’s glory filled the temple in Revelation 15, no one could enter. The plagues outside had not yet ended. God was not and is not worried about or fretting over his glory. Pastors may worry about the safety of their vulnerable faithful in the administration of communion, and rightfully so. Vestries may worry about bottom lines, and drop-offs in giving, and not without warrant. Yet, we need not worry about the glory of God.
The LORD is in his holy temple; *
the LORD’s throne is in heaven.
His eyes behold the inhabited world; *
his piercing eye weighs our worth.
The LORD weighs the righteous as well as the wicked, *
but those who delight in violence he abhors.
Upon the wicked he shall rain coals of fire and
burning sulphur; *
a scorching wind shall be their lot.
For the LORD is righteous;
he delights in righteous deeds; *
and the just shall see his face (Ps 11:4–8, BCP 1979)
We fail as leaders in the church if we think only about re-opening, and do not also turn our eyes to justice in our streets and the need for jubilee in the land in which we live. We cannot enter the sanctuary to worship if we do not ponder the glory, the holiness, and the justice of the One we would dare to enter in to worship.
As a priest and pastor I am troubled by my own failures as a human, as a white man, as a husband, as a father, and as a minister of the gospel of God’s just mercy. I am troubled by my own quarantined insulation from the suffering of others and my callousness to my own lack of repentance. Our hope is found in repentance. Jesus’s first message was simple, and it was not insulated from the threat of unjust incarceration or death: “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news’” (Mark 1:14–15).
By the mercy and grace of God, I hope that we may repent. I hope that we may also sing again. Will we be able to sing without hypocrisy of the justice of the One we worship?
And they sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb:
“Great and amazing are your deeds,
Lord God the Almighty!
Just and true are your ways,
King of the nations!
Lord, who will not fear
and glorify your name?
For you alone are holy.
All nations will come
and worship before you,
for your judgments have been revealed.”
Fr. Paul Wheatley is a priest of the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas and a Ph.D. student at the University of Notre Dame.