[This is the second in a series of sermons in interpreting America in the 21st century in light of the Book of Revelation. The series will continue, monthly for about two years.]
Revelation 1:1-20—Shalom Mennonite Congregation—October 16, 2011
I had kind of a disorienting thought the other day. When I graduated from high school my dad was 55 years old. To me he was a rock, wise, competent, sure-footed. And old. A newspaper article from this time called him a “grizzled veteran coach.”
Here’s the disorienting thought. I am now two years older than my dad was then….I don’t feel grizzled, and I feel like I barely know what to do. My dad seemed to know exactly what to do; I never saw him struggle with any choices or uncertainties. Usually, it seems like I just guess and hope for the best when it comes to important decisions—you know, major home repair issues or whether to try to go to Africa to see the grandkids or important medical decisions. So often, I don’t know what to do.
So, that makes me think that maybe even my dad was not as certain and invulnerable as he seemed to me. Sometimes maybe he was just guessing and hoping for the best too.
And then that thought underscores to me that maybe in general our wisdom is pretty limited. Our choices are fallible and imperfect. We do the best we can, but there is so much we don’t know, so much we don’t understand, so little we can be certain of. We rarely know for sure the right thing to do. I think back 16 years ago—would we stay in South Dakota where we had had two great years? Or would we move to Bluffton, Ohio, or to Harrisonburg, where I could become a college teacher? We did just guess!
So maybe it’s a good idea to cultivate our humility and tentativeness and forbearance toward others. We all do try, but we are all limited—and I am just as capable of making an idiotic choice as my neighbor.
It strikes me that theology and Christian beliefs and ethical stances are all like this in relation to choices too—choices mostly made at least somewhat in the dark, choices mostly that are really just our best guesses. The idea of religious certainty and being dogmatic about certain “absolutes” to the point of violence seems highly problematic.
But still, the Yogi Berra imperative remains: When you come to a fork in the road, take it. We must still move ahead, we must make choices (imperfect as they surely will be). Ever since I became an addict of the early video game Tetris about twenty years ago I have thought of life as being like a constant Tetris game. Our choices are like Tetris pieces falling down on us; we do have to act, to choose, or else we will get completely snowed under.
So, when we pick up the Bible, we must start making choices right away. What to read. How to read it. How to apply it. And certainly this is the case should we make our way to the end of the Bible and read the book of Revelation.
Is Revelation mainly predictions about the future or exhortation for first century believers? Is it better read in relation to other, non-biblical writings in the so-called apocalyptic genre or read in relation to the New Testament? Are the plagues in Revelation from God or from the Beast?
Our first choice: Is this a revelation from or about Jesus?
Maybe the most important choice comes right away. When the first words of the book tell us this is a “revelation of Jesus Christ” do they mean a revelation from Jesus or a revelation about Jesus? Either reading is totally possible. Maybe we should see both as being intended, at least to some degree. But I think we still have to choose which meaning to emphasize more, the Greek words themselves don’t tell us. But our choice will be important.
To emphasize more “a revelation from Jesus” may set a tone of distance between Jesus and the visions that follow. This distance makes it easier to see Jesus as describing terrible judgment that God visits upon the earth—and Revelation as a fear-inducing book.
To emphasize more “a revelation about Jesus” may lead to seeing Jesus as more directly involved in the visions; they reveal Jesus, not what Jesus describes. Which then leads to another choice: If this is a revelation about Jesus, does Revelation show us Jesus-as-judge, one who comes as a violent conqueror? Or does Revelation show us Jesus-as-servant, one who brings healing through compassion?
This is my choice (my best guess that I make hoping for the best): This book is most of all a revelation about Jesus that gives a vision of how compassion might work in our car wreck of a world. Such a choice of how to read Revelation will, I believe, open our imaginations to find in the wild and wooly visions of Revelation help for our healing work. That is what I will try to show in these sermons as we work through Revelation.
So let’s start with chapter one, which actually turns out to be full of imagery related to Jesus. Let me read it to you now. As I read, try to notice what we are told about Jesus here. Then we can talk about it a bit.
The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show God’s servants what must soon take place; God sent an angel to John, who testified to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, in all that he saw.
John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loved us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.
Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him; and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail. “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.
I, John, your brother who shares with you in Jesus the persecution and the kingdom and the patient endurance, was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. I was in the spirit on the Lord’s day and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet saying, “Write in a book what you see and send it to the seven churches.”
Then I turned to see whose voice it was that spoke to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the lampstands I saw one like the Son of Man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash across his chest. His head and his hair were white as white wool, white as snow; his eyes were like flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined as in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of many waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and from his mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining with full force.
When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he placed his right hand on me, saying, “Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and Hades. Now write what you have seen, what is, and what is to take place after this. As for the mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand, and the seven golden lampstands: the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.
So, what does this chapter tell us about Jesus?…
Jesus is very, very powerful
If I had to say it in a nutshell, I think this chapter means to tell us that Jesus is very, very powerful. He is powerful in relation to the nations (“the ruler of the kings of the earth,” “on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail”). He is powerful in relation to the churches with a loud, loud voice, holding the angels of the churches and walking among the churches themselves. He holds the keys to death and Hades.
However, the issue of the nature of Jesus’ power—and the nature of God’s power, for that matter—is huge in understanding what Revelation might say to the 21st century. When we get to chapter five, we will see the most important vision of the entire book. No one is found powerful enough to open the scroll that holds the fulfillment of history. So John weeps. Then he is told someone powerful enough has at last been found, so don’t weep. But what he sees is a slain and resurrected Lamb—the symbol for a very different kind of power.
Revelation challenges us to accept Lamb-power as actual power, the fundamental power of history, the kind of power that runs with the grain of the universe. But lambs don’t kill and dominate and instill fear and justify violence in the name of a “realistic” need for peace and order. Lambs don’t violently punish their enemies. But they provide the image for Revelation’s portrayal of the power that matters most.
The book A Force More Powerful, by Jack Duvall and Peter Ackerman, tells story after story of the effectiveness of Lamb-power in challenging forces of domination during the 20th century. The salt marchers under Gandhi’s leadership, the people of Denmark who staged public hymn sings to defy Nazi occupation and smuggled almost every Jew in Denmark to safety, the steadfastly nonviolent union workers in Poland who patiently transformed their country from a satellite in the Soviet Communist bloc to a resilient democracy. These stories, which continue to be enacted in Liberia and Egypt and many other places around the world overthrow standard understandings of power.
Revelation is not precisely a blueprint for nonviolent political revolution, but it does provide a theology to inspire upside-down notions of politics—if we make the right choices when we read it.
So, we start with a sense that this is a Revelation that will tell us more about Jesus—not more about a different kind of Jesus who wields a death-dealing sword of judgment in his right hand, but more about the same Jesus of the Gospels whose “sword” comes out of his mouth. This sword coming from his mouth is kind of a grotesque image if we take it literally. But if we recognize the symbolism we may see the image pointing to the path Jesus trod during his life—his power was based on his defenseless testimony.
We keep our eyes open for indicators that this defenseless Jesus is the one being revealed in Revelation. And hidden in the opening verses is a description of Jesus that actually captures the essence of his testimony—and puts us on notice that the issues of politics, power, confronting domination are key parts of the revelation.
The pattern of Jesus
John offers his readers a blessing from God and from Jesus. And this is how he describes Jesus: “the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth” (1:5). I believe that these three descriptors present in a nutshell what we could call the pattern of Jesus. This is the pattern of Jesus: Faithful living, to the point of suffering due to one’s resistance to the domination system, even to the point of death. Vindication by God, the witness sustained even through death, resurrection, sustained hope, true power. And then the status as ruler of the kings of the earth.
What does “ruler of the kings of the earth mean?” We’ll need to work through Revelation to get a better sense of how to answer this question. Let me suggest now that we should always keep in mind the there is only one Jesus who has only one way of ruling. He made that clear to his followers: “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them. But it is not so among you; whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant” (Mark 10:42-43).
And let’s look ahead to how the story in Revelation ends: in the New Jerusalem we see a shocking image, given what happens between chapters six and 21. The domination system seeks to dominate using the violence of the kings of the earth—but notice how it all ends up: “The city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it” (21:24). A verse later we are told that “nothing unclean” will enter the city.
That is, the Lamb as lamp gives light to the healed and transformed kings of the earth—ruling them with compassion and self-giving love. They are no longer unclean, that is, they no longer operate by the ethics of domination.
The relevance of an “exalted” Jesus
Revelation one definitely presents, with all its somewhat complicated imagery, an exalted picture of Jesus. But what’s the point of this picture for us today, living in a society that seems to share all too much in common with the beastly society of Revelation?
This is what I think. The exaltation of Jesus is here is not so much about establishing his identity as divinity incarnate. Revelation does link Jesus with God more closely than much of the rest of the New Testament. But why? Not to set the stage for the 4th century creeds—creeds commissioned by the Roman emperor. Not to establish a doctrinal boundary marker to separate true believers from heretics.
It was something very different. Jesus is exalted here in the context of John’s book long critique of domination. John is shown Lamb-power as the true power of the universe. Even in the face of a sword wielding Empire. Even in the face of terrorism in service of anti-empire retribution. The exalted Lamb is exalted as Lamb, not as warrior. The exalted Lamb is exalted because of his faithful witness to persevering compassion and love.
In my History and Philosophy of Nonviolence class we are in the middle of looking at the American civil rights movement. A key moment in the movement came in Nashville in 1960 when a bunch of college students began a rigorously nonviolent campaign to integrate Nashville’s downtown lunch counters. At the heart of their group were several students from the poorest and least prestigious of Nashville’s several African-American colleges. But these students found themselves with extraordinary power due simply to their commitment to stand together for justice. And they met with great success and turned Nashville upside down.
And they weren’t ready to stop. Many of them headed farther south, in face of a much greater likelihood of death-dealing violence to join the Freedom Rides that sought to push for integration in Alabama and other states. The federal government was deeply alarmed with the students’ boldness. The students were willing to undergo great suffering in order to pressure the Kennedy administration actually to enforce anti-segregation laws.
A documentary on these events, called “Freedom Riders,” has an extraordinary clip of Attorney General Robert Kennedy, Mr. Realpolitik in his brother’s administration. Kennedy rants, “who is Diane Nash? Who the hell is Diane Nash? Get her on the phone.” Diane Nash was the leader of the Nashville students, a college student, probably at most 21 years old. Kennedy’s assistant berated her, told her to get the students to stop. Kennedy didn’t want to be forced to act—and thereby alienate the racist southern Democrats who had voted for his brother.
But Nash wouldn’t budge. These students were ready to pay the ultimate price. A few did, others came pretty close. And Robert Kennedy backed down. Ultimately the federal government did act, and major changes came. Self-giving love as genuine power. The exalted Lamb. This revelation remains potent—and necessary in our car wreck of a world.
A call to see God’s power in the present
Let me close by bringing together two very unlikely partners in thought—Martin Heidegger and Wendell Berry. Heidegger, the great, controversial, and difficult to understand German philosopher, gave a famous interview not long before his death. He spoke pessimistically about the ways modern technology is dominating humanity more and more, and drives us ever deeper toward an abyss he could see little hope of escaping. As a statement, really, of his despair, he stated “only a god can save us.” He didn’t mean the personal God of the biblical tradition. The idea was more that we need some help from the outside, some kind of miracle to free us from technology’s ever more confining iron cage—a miracle he didn’t expect.
But then there is Wendell Berry, the Kentucky poet-farmer who is well known for his critique of agribusiness and other dehumanizing dynamics in our modern world. But Berry holds out more hope that the iron cage is not the only reality. One of his great poems is called “The Wild Geese” where he draws on the promise of the tree in the persimmon seed and on the “ancient faith” that guides the wild geese on their way. Then he concludes, “We pray, not for new earth or heaven, but to be quiet in heart, and in eye clear. What we need is here.”
Let me suggest we hold these two ideas together: “Only a god can save us” and “what we need is here.” I think the deepest message of Revelation is that the good creation is where Lamb-power is at work—but we need clear eyes to see that power and to trust that power. That is what the in breaking of God’s mercy can provide, faith to see that what we need is here. John’s hope in recording his revelation, I think, is to stimulate our imaginations to see what we need in the pattern of Jesus. And to know that it is here.