[This is the ninth 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.]
Shalom Mennonite Congregation—September 16, 2012—Revelation 11:1–12:17
Welcome back to the wild and woolly world of the Book of Revelation! In these monthly sermons I try to wrest this most fascinating of biblical books from two different kinds of reading. One sees it as being a truthful account of the future, full of predictions and a set-in-concrete plan of God that will violently cleanse the earth of all those who oppose God—both rebellious human beings and the evil satanic powers. The second problematic reading sees Revelation as the paranoid ravings of a religious fanatic who projects onto God all his anger and envy and judgmentalism and gives us an unbelievable picture of future catastrophes and punishing tribulations.
Of course, though one view loves Revelation and the second hates it, both agree on many important details about its content—violence, judgment, future catastrophes.
A quixotic quest?
What I try to do, perhaps a quixotic or starry-eyed quest, is read Revelation instead as a book of peace, a book that intends to strengthen people of good will so that we might witness to peace in a violent world. A book that, by strengthening peacemakers will play a role in God’s work of healing—healing even for God’s human enemies.
Today, right in the middle of the book, we will look at two wondrous stories that, in all their bewildering detail, each essentially tells us the same thing. God is indeed work to heal God’s good creation—and a crucial role in this work is to be played by the human followers of the Lamb. The role these followers have to play asks of them two things—that they embrace a ministry amidst the nations of the world of telling the truth. And that, in embracing this ministry, they refuse to be deterred by suffering and even death.
Before I read an abbreviated version of these two stories from Revelation 11 and 12, I’d like to present you with a question to think about as you listen. If we imagine truthtelling in our world right now, what would be some truths you think need to be told—to the society as a whole or, maybe, especially, to the churches. Let me read the stories, then we will talk about examples of truthtelling a bit.
I was told, “Measure the temple of God, but do not measure the court outside the temple; it is given over to the nations, and they will trample the holy city for forty-two months. I will grant my two witnesses authority to prophesy for one thousand two hundred and sixty days. If anyone wants to harm them, fire pours from their mouth and consumes their foes. When they have finished their testimony, the beast that comes up from the bottomless pit will make war on them and conquer them. Their dead bodies will lie in the street of the great city symbolically called Sodom and Egypt, where also their Lord was crucified. For three and a half days the inhabitants of the earth will gloat over them and celebrate and exchange presents, because these two prophets had been a torment to the inhabitants of the earth.
But after the three and a half days, the breath of life from God entered them, and they stood on their feet, and those who saw them were wonder-struck. Then they heard a loud voice from heaven saying to them, “Come up here!” And they went up to heaven in a cloud while their enemies watched them. At that moment there was a great earthquake, and a tenth of the city fell; seven thousand people were killed in the earthquake, and the rest were wonder-struck and gave glory to God. Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet. Loud voices in heaven said, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign forever and ever.” Then the twenty-four elders who sit on their throne before God fell on their faces and worshiped God.
A great portent appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pangs. Then another portent appeared in heaven: a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems on his heads. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth. Then the dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, so that he might devour her child as soon as it was born. And she gave birth to a child is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron. But her child was snatched away and taken to God; and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, so that there she can be nourished for one thousand two hundred sixty days.
And war broke out in heaven. The dragon, the ancient serpent called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world, was thrown down to the earth. Then I heard a loud voice in heaven proclaim, “Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Messiah, for the accuser of our comrades has been thrown down. They have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death. Rejoice then, you heavens! But woe to the earth, for the devil has come down to you with great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!” When the dragon saw that he had been thrown down to the earth, he pursued the woman. But she was safely sent to her place where she is nourished for a time, and times, and half a time. The dragon was angry with the woman, and went off to make war on the rest of her children, those who keep the commandments of God and hold the testimony of Jesus. (11:1–12:17)
So, what did you think of? What are some truths you think should be told?
The story Revelation tells
Let’s think of these two stories in the context of the bigger story that the book of Revelation tells. The first five chapters of the book present the agenda of the book—to provide encouragement for people who have faith in the Lamb, Jesus, to follow his path while they negotiate the treacherous waters of life in the Roman Empire.
The book starts with an account of the pattern of Jesus—the faithful witness to a way of compassion who resists the injustices of empire. He gave his life in order to free all those who would embrace his revelation of God’s mercy. Then this Jesus challenges his followers in various congregations to be clear—they “conquer” the Powers through persevering love, not through fitting in the ways of empire.
To underscore the core message, we are told in chapter five of the triumphant Lamb. His self-giving love opens the path to bring history of a healing conclusion. However, in the time between the Lamb’s acts of faithful life, death, and resurrection, and the coming of the New Jerusalem (when the contents of the great scroll the Lamb takes from the one on the throne will be fully revealed), in this time in-between, some hard things are going to come.
Beginning in chapter six, we read of a series of plagues that bring terrible suffering and destruction on an ever-increasing part of creation—both human beings and nature. Initially, we are given the impression that these come from God. I believe, though, that the portrayal of God’s relationship with the plagues is deliberately vague—the passive voice used (“they were allowed…”)—and the term “wrath” is common—with the sense of a kind of built-in process where negative actions lead to negative consequences. This is God’s world, so these consequences in some sense can be seen as from God, but in an indirect, essentially impersonal sense.
Then, in chapter nine, we see where the plagues lead—human beings who live separate from God “still do not repent.” So, for the healing to happen, God must intervene beyond simply the negative spiral of sin leading to bad consequences that defines “wrath.” In chapter ten we are told of a “mighty angel” who shares important characteristics with Jesus—like the Jesus envisioned in chapter one, the mighty angel has a rainbow over his head, a face like the sun, and legs like pillars of fire.
A turn in the plot
Another series of plagues, the thunders, is readied, but then, unexpectedly, they are shut up. We have a turn in the plot. Instead of a spiral of judgment, we will have actions that break the spiral. Significantly, John himself is given a scroll to eat that evokes the great scroll the Lamb took from the One on the throne in chapter five. Having eaten this scroll, John reports two very different kinds of visions in chapters eleven and twelve.
These two stories tell of the two witnesses and of the woman and her offspring. They add two crucial points to the overall picture John paints. First, they emphasize truthtelling. The “two witnesses” are also called “the two lampstands” (11:4). Chapter one refers to the lampstands being churches, so I think we should see the “two witnesses” here as a symbol for all the followers of the Lamb. The “one thousand two hundred and sixty days” refers to something like the entire period of time following Jesus’ resurrection—the same time, that is, of the various plagues we see so graphically described, during this time—historical time (that is, now, the time we live in)—the two witnesses “prophesy.” They speak truth to a world so easily bamboozled by the messages of power politics, self-interest all the way down, religion that serves the status quo, and disrespect toward the vulnerable.
John tells us something pretty interesting. These two witnesses have the power to “consume” those who want to “harm them”—but their weapon is “fire [that] pours from their mouth” (11:5). I take this as an image of the power of their words, their verbal witness. This is analogous to the sword we are told comes from Jesus’ mouth back in chapter one. Their power is simply the power of speaking the truth. At the end of chapter twelve we have a similar idea. The children of the woman (also a symbol for all the followers of the Lamb) are called the ones who “hold the testimony of Jesus” (12:17). So, the effectiveness of the witnesses is based on their speaking truth.
The second point these two stories add is that these witnesses were not afraid to suffer. As they speak truth in face of a world bent on domination and repressing truth, they face consequences. Jesus, though, shows the way. He was the faithful witness (that is, the faithful martyr, the faithful truthteller) who conquers even as he is killed. This is the message of chapter five. The slain Lamb is the “Lion of the Tribe of Judah” who is able to take the scroll. Likewise with the people in the congregations addressed in chapters two and three. They were called to “conquer”—not by finding a place at the table of the powerful, not by gathering their own weapons of coercion, and not by waiting for the Lamb to do their killing for them so that they would not have risk suffering themselves.
No, the Lamb’s people conquer when they follow the path of truth-telling all the way. The Beast makes war on them and actually “conquers” them—that is, puts them to death. In this case, as with Jesus, this violence by the Beast does not end the story. God vindicates these witnesses. They are resurrected.
In the second story, in chapter twelve, of the woman and her offspring, the statement is made explicitly: “Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Messiah, for the accuser of our comrades has been thrown down. They conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death” (12:11). They conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death. This is huge—“our comrades,” here, that is, we human beings who seek to follow the Lamb, have a crucial role to play in God’s victory. The bringing in of the New Jerusalem is an effort of God and of human beings. We are not simply passive observers. Revelation as a whole exhorts its readers to faithful truthtelling and the willingness to do truthtelling all the way to the end. This is how we help conquer the Dragon.
God is not our enemy
So now we are told that God is not our enemy. No matter how we might think of God’s indirect and providential oversight of the plagues, we are told here of the actual agents of the direct death and destruction that characterizes these twelve hundred and sixty days of history between Jesus’ resurrection and the final coming of the New Jerusalem, the plagues are the work of the Beast making war on the two witnesses and the Dragon making war on the woman’s offspring. The next several chapters will make the role—and the fate—of these evil Powers much more clear.
The point here though, is meant to be encouraging. While you can take for granted for now that the Beast and Dragon will be active, you must not become fatalistic or nihilistic in face of their deeds. Nor must you become “realistic” and take up their methods to combat them. God’s method of conquering for faithful human beings is the same as it was for God’s Son: “Conquer by keeping the commandments and holding the testimony of Jesus” whose self-giving love is the force more powerful that actually does conquer the Powers of evil—by breaking spiral of violence, by making healing possible even for God’s human enemies.
So, what does this message mean for us? Of course, we can leave or take the book of Revelation. The great thing about the Bible is that it doesn’t force itself upon us. It woos us with the elegance of its message (or not)—I would say. I think Revelation is elegant should we give it the benefit of the doubt.
The message of Revelation 11–12 for today
This is what I think Revelation 11 and 12 have to say to us today. We too live in a time and place, like first century Rome, where empire as a way of life corrupts language and thereby inflicts damage on persons and communities (as Wendell Berry states in the quote on our bulletin). So, we need to discern how language is being destructive of meaning—and we need to discern how to speak truth in face of that destruction.
How is language being emptied of meaning in our setting? Well, just listen to political ads and speeches during this election year—or read the pundits who in the name of being “even-handed” refuse to provide accountability for overt lies that truly do seem mostly to come from one side of the political spectrum.
But also think of the language of war and militarism. When our bombers kill ten times more civilians than combatants their work is called, antiseptically, “collateral damage.” I remember a powerful political cartoon from the first Gulf War of a weeping mother holding a small, inert form: “This collateral damage was only eight months old,” she cried.
Even the term “national defense.” The U.S. changed the name of the War Department to the “Defense Department” right after World War II. This was precisely the moment when we transitioned to a permanent war footing and greatly expanded our foreign military presence around the world. The War Department was mainly defensive and temporal—when the war was over we returned to a quite small military presence. With the Defense Department we took the offensive, we stayed engaged and increasingly militarized our entire federal government.
Another set of examples would be the way we use the language of commodification to speak of things we used to use more personal language for. Students become “consumers of a product, education.” Forests become “timber harvests.”
In Revelation, what is most dangerous about the Beast is its way of defining reality. This is why—as we will see in chapter 13—John presents the Beast in religious terms. The Beast’s power—then and now—as Gandhi recognized, depends upon the people living in its domain giving their consent to its rule, in people believing in it. The danger for the communities of faith John wrote Revelation for was that they would grant this consent and not recognize that the truth of the Lamb and the “truth” of the Beast tend to be altogether different things.
We know from history, and from looking around today, that to resist giving consent to the Beast’s way of defining reality, that is, to tell the truth, can be risky business indeed. But John proclaims that the power the Beast actually has in far from total. It only seems that way when we accept its definitions. When we don’t accept its definitions, it is greatly weakened
Another debased word in our world today is “realism.” Political theory that calls for accommodation to power politics is called “realistic.” This actually is crazy. Just to trace the trajectory in the United States since 1945 shows the claims of the “realists” to be bogus. Sure, it was the most realistic and necessary thing to go to war in Korea and in Vietnam and continually to accelerate the arms races and to fight terrorism with war upon war. This “realism” is bankrupts our country, economically, environmentally, and morally.
Truthtellers to celebrate
The truthtellers we should celebrate rejected such “realism” and willingly tell the truth all the way, even in face of death. Perhaps our most famous truthteller in this country is Martin Luther King, who has, unfortunately, been somewhat sanitized to serve the dominate narrative in our country—so we tend not to hear about his sharp and oh so direct critique of the war in Vietnam that cost him President Johnson’s support and his sharp and oh so direct critique of our unjust economic system. Yet he continued on his path even in face of the risks that did end his life way too early.
Today maybe we could include Private Bradley Manning who shared with the world the hidden domination transcripts of the American Empire and is paying great cost, terribly tortured now at the hands of the country he actually tried to serve. Or diplomat Charles Wilson who spoke the truth about the fabricated rationale for our attack on Iraq and had his career destroyed.
One of my favorite American heroes is U.S. Representative Jeanette Rankin of Montana. She was one of the first women elected to Congress and in her first term proceeded to vote against American entry in World War I. She lost her next election. But she refused to go away and, amazingly, over twenty years later was finally elected again—just in time to cast the sole vote against our entry in World War II. That put the final nail in the coffin of her political career. I think only when we take the full measure of how much the “good War” cost our society will we come to appreciate her truthtelling as much as we should.
One of my favorite country singers, Guy Clark, has a great song about truthtelling called “Walkin’ Man”:
Now what’s up with the walking man
I wonder where he’s gone
Marchin’ down to Birmingham
I think I’ll tag along….
Woody Guthrie was a walkin’ man…
So was Gandhi too
Lace me up my old Brogans
That’s just what I’ll do
I’ve got walkin’ left to do.
Chapter eleven and twelve commentary