(A sermon on Revelation Chapters 13 & 22, given 21/06/15. It was the last of three on the subject of reading apocalyptic literature in the Bible…)
What, then, have we learned so far about apocalyptic literature?
First, apocalyptic literature is the literature of the oppressed. It comes from Ezekiel in a refugee camp on the banks of the Tigris while his homeland is under siege. From Daniel, taken by force (and possibly emasculated) to serve in the Babylonian court. It comes from Jesus as his country stares down the barrel of the Roman war machine, and from John, criminalised and exiled by the Roman Empire.
Second, it was a way of talking about political realities about the rise and fall of this empire and that kingdom. It was a way of talking about war, violence, greed, injustice, economics and oppression; the big things going on that affected ordinary people’s lives.
Third, it is a literature that speaks to us today, giving us ways of thinking about our world and our situation. It encourages us to find a language and images to describe the powers in our own time… to unmask them and to adopt a stance toward them. And so it is a literature of resistance.
And fourth, it is literature of hope. Through its imaginative and visual language it helps us to imagine the possibility of a different world, that is, the world arranged differently. These images of hope are not things we’re supposed to passively wait for. They’re supposed to energise us towards a different way of living, towards a different kind of world.
THE BEASTS: Visions for a Community of Resistance
Our story begins with an old person called John. He’s been exiled by the Roman powers, and lives among criminalised and marginalised non-persons, on an Island at the margins of the Roman Empire.
Allow me to describe part of his vision:
John sees a woman, with twelve stars about her head. She’s pregnant, and indeed she’s giving birth. And he also sees a red dragon with many heads and many horns, crouched by the woman and waiting to devour the child. But when the child is born he’s swept up to heaven and the woman turns and escapes into the wilderness. And so the dragon turns his attention heavenwards, where the child has gone.
And then, suddenly, there is war. The angel Michael and the other angels fight the dragon and his angels until the dragon is defeated and thrown back to earth. There he seeks out the woman. When he finds her he opens his mouth and a torrent of water gushes out to wash her away, but the earth itself wakes up to defend her! It opens up to swallow up the dragon’s tsunami. And so the dragon is left stood by the sea, and he is furious. He vows, there on the beach, to make war on the rest of her offspring…
What does it mean? The text of Revelation 12 actually tells us what most of it means. The dragon is Satan. The child is Jesus the Messiah. The woman then is Israel, from whom the messiah has come, with twelve stars for the twelve tribes. The rest of her offspring are those who follow Jesus. And so we might say that all follow Jesus are in a sense implicated in this chapter.
This is an apocalyptic retelling of the Gospel story; of the Messiah being born into human history, and of Satan’s failed battle to thwart Him. But it tells us something particular – and this is what I believe John wants us to understand here – that there is a great conflict at work in the world, and in history… and that we are somehow part of it.
We are left with this image: the dragon poised on the beach by the sea, having vowed to make war on the Good News People. What does this war look like? What form does it take? What is this evil that we are called to resist? This is the urgent question.
And with that question in mind we’ll read Revelation chapter 13…
And I saw a beast rising out of the sea, with ten horns and seven heads, with ten diadems on its horns and blasphemous names on its heads. And the beast that I saw was like a leopard; its feet were like a bear’s, and its mouth was like a lion’s mouth. And to it the dragon gave his power and his throne and great authority. One of its heads seemed to have a mortal wound, but its mortal wound was healed, and the whole earth marveled as they followed the beast. And they worshiped the dragon, for he had given his authority to the beast, and they worshiped the beast, saying, “Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?”
And the beast was given a mouth uttering haughty and blasphemous words, and it was allowed to exercise authority for forty-two months. It opened its mouth to utter blasphemies against God, blaspheming his name and his dwelling, that is, those who dwell in heaven. Also it was allowed to make war on the saints and to conquer them. And authority was given it over every tribe and people and language and nation, and all who dwell on earth will worship it, everyone whose name has not been written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who was slain. If anyone has an ear, let him hear:
If anyone is to be taken captive,
to captivity he goes;
if anyone is to be slain with the sword,
with the sword must he be slain.
Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints.
Then I saw another beast rising out of the earth. It had two horns like a lamb and it spoke like a dragon. It exercises all the authority of the first beast in its presence, and makes the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast, whose mortal wound was healed. It performs great signs, even making fire come down from heaven to earth in front of people, and by the signs that it is allowed to work in the presence of the beast it deceives those who dwell on earth, telling them to make an image for the beast that was wounded by the sword and yet lived. And it was allowed to give breath to the image of the beast, so that the image of the beast might even speak and might cause those who would not worship the image of the beast to be slain. Also it causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead, so that no one can buy or sell unless he has the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name. This calls for wisdom: let the one who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man, and his number is 666. (Revelation 13)
What does all this sound like? It sounds a lot like Daniel chapter 7, where beasts of one kind and then another emerge out of a stormy sea – which represents chaos, instability, and perhaps evil. In Daniel the beasts represent a series of empires (as is explained by the angel). And so when John’s vision has us imagining a furious Satan crouched by the sea, everybody knows the script… everybody knows that we are now waiting for some awful beast to emerge from the water. And everybody knows that the beast is the Roman Empire under which John was exiled.
The many heads are its rulers. The horns represent its power, The diadems its political authority (none of this is supposed to be cryptic. These are the common meanings of these symbols in the apocalyptic genre). The blasphemies scrawled over the beast represent its arrogance, its coinage that declared Caesar the son of god… the imperial cult which obliged all peoples to worship Caesar alongside their own faiths. The wounded head represents its resilience; one deranged emperor dies, and another takes his place. It is not the ruler who rules but the empire itself. Rulers appear at one end and disappear out the other, but the system continues, darkly indifferent.
We read that the empire has “authority over every tribe and people and tongue…” which sounds like a perversion of the Kingdom of God which brings peace – shalom – to all tribes and tongues in the self-emptying love of God in Jesus. The Roman peace – the pax romana – on the other hand is quite different: peace for all those who accepted the wisdom of empire, the worship of its system and obedience to its order and its taxation that pulled wealth and power from the edges of empire into the lap Rome and of Caesar’s palace. And for those who refuse: crucifixion and war.
The second beast is some delegate or extension of all this. It exercises the authority of the first. In this image John describes the power of empire, not just to distantly organise our lives through politics and law, but to permeate our very selves… to colonise our minds, our worldview and our spirituality… until we cannot imagine our reality without empire… until empire is just the way things are. We become part of it. It marks us on our hands and our heads. Its integral to the way we live and life seems unthinkable without it.
“Who is like the beast? Who can fight against it?” say the people. It seems to permeate everything… to be unstoppable… The beginning and the end, the alpha and the omega.
And yet, John gives the harsh ultimatum. We cannot follow Christ and empire, because at the heart of empire is blasphemy, violence and greed. Blasphemy, because it sets itself up as the final word… Violence, because it keeps its place by killing its opponents… And greed, because it re-arranges the world around itself, for profit (the Capital is always where the money is, yes?). John tells us: “If anyone is to be taken captive… If anyone is to be slain” so be it. In any case, we are never to accept this imperial state of affairs. We are never to accept the violence, greed and blasphemous pride of the empire. We will never bow to Caesar. It is empire that is summoned up by Satan to destroy the People of God, and it is empire that we must resist. Our hope is in a different kind of order.
So John sees and records this image of the empire of his time, to inspire resilience and resistance among those in the seven Churches and beyond. What of us? What do we think? Does the picture resound? Do we live in an age of empire? What kind of apocalyptic imagery might reveal the kind of empire that we live in? What kind of beast might we draw or imagine to describe global capitalism? Or consumerism, with its workforce of foreign slave labour?
Or the Western tolerance & democracy that is so wise that it must be dropped into Middle Eastern countries along with bombs if necessary? Or what about the aspiring the counter-empire, Isis? People in our city are so alienated and marginalised by the empire of the west, that they go to join another one to fight it… to defeat one empire by building another… to win by putting on a show of being more diabolically violent than whatever has gone before.
We are called to a different way of living.. A different hope. “Not by might, nor by power… but by my spirit, says the LORD” The Kingdom does not come by military force, but by grace.
Nor is it waiting for us somewhere else after we die. It is here and now. It is “among you” says Jesus… small and fragile though it looks. It’s like the yeast working through the dough of history. And so Jesus taught us to pray this subversive prayer: “May Your Kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.”
The Good News people, says John, must be a community of resistance against the political powers of greed, violence and blasphemous pride.
Do you remember what happens to the beast in Daniel ch7? It is destroyed. And so it is with beasts of Revelation. And so it is with all empires. History itself teaches us no other lesson.
THE RIVER: Visions for a Community of Hope
As John’s vision continues to unfold he sees an almost unimaginable future. The systems of evil are overthrown. With the return of Jesus, God is once again to be in the world as he was in the beginning. We see an altogether different vision of the how the world will one day be.
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever. (Revelation 22:1-5)
And what does this sound like? I sounds quite a lot like Ezekiel’s vision of a new temple. From that temple flows a river of life, and either side of the river there are trees which bear fruit and leaves for healing.
In John’s vision the river is flowing, not from the temple, but “from the throne of God and of [Jesus] the Lamb….” because now “the dwelling place of God is with man.”
The image is unspeakably beautiful, of a river flowing from God Himself down the centre of the street in the middle of the city, with a tree growing from both banks forming a bridge over it.
What does this imagery speak of? It is a vision that reversed the wisdom of empire. The empire draws to itself all the wealth and resources and life from the nations it has conquered. But at the centre of the Kingdom of God there begins a river of life which flows outwards to nourish the nations and to bring them life.
The empire thinks of the surrounding nations as potential enemies to be dominated, conquered and suppressed, and the cities of empire are full of statues of military leaders with their legs cocked up threateningly on canons. But at the centre of the City of God is the tree of life which bears leaves for the healing of the nations… the peoples and tribes, broken and traumatised by histories of violence, greed and pride.
And the tree bears fruit, not every year, but every month. In the Kingdom says John, there is enough for everybody.
The image also presents us with a paradox about the people in this vision of the world-made-new. On one hand they are called servants of God – not because God is a tyrant who demands millions of servants to fight his wars and feed him grapes. We must remember that God himself has walked among us as our servant – washing our feet and giving His life to defend ours. God has shown servant-hood and service – that is love – as the most excellent way.
On the other hand we also read that “they will reign forever and ever”. Not “they” as in the trinity, or God and the angels, but “they” as in the servants of God, the people… the nations. Caesar never served anyone, and he never shared his reign with anyone. God does both. This is our God. And this is the vision that we call out for whenever we pray the subversive prayer: “May Your Kingdom come… on earth as it is in Heaven.”
Two Visions & Two Callings
Here John gives us two visions: a vision of resistance and a vision of hope. But John didn’t write these visions down so that we could sit on our hand and wait for the empire to blow over, or passively wait for the Kingdom to land. We are not called to a passive resistance or a passive hope, but to active resistance and active hope. Indeed, we, the church at Edward Rd, are called to be a community of resistance and a community of hope in a time when the world is being torn apart by greed, violence and blasphemous pride.
Where do we begin? How do we start to be a community of resistance? How do we begin to be a community of Hope?
I suggest two things:
First, lets talk. I encourage you this week to ask someone to tell you their story. Let’s hear each other and try to understand the forces that have shaped our lives for good or bad. In talking to each other and by praying to God together, let’s begin to try and understand the spirit of empire in our own times. Let’s find our own language and images for it, and so become a community of resistance – a witness against what is passing.
Second, Let’s care for each other. I encourage you to pray about who – within or beyond our community 0 you can help this week. Who is suffering that we can pray with, or care for, or bring healing to (whether miraculous or not)? Who is struggling that we can help? Who is in need that we can share with? And so we become a community of hope – and expression of what is to come.
Our hope is not in the false stability of empire but in the Kingdom which will be complete when Jesus the King returns. In the meantime we are called to point our life as a community away from empire, and towards the Kingdom… and to call others to join us. We are being called, in the power of the Spirit and in the name of Jesus Christ, to help bring it about… to not only pray the subversive prayer, but to live it: “May Your Kingdom come… on earth as it is in heaven.”