[This is the thirteenth 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—February 17, 2013—Revelation 17:1-18
Welcome back to the wild and crazy world of the book of Revelation. My job today is further to persuade you that it’s our friend. Revelation is our friend as we desire wholeness in our world, as we seek peace with humanity and with the rest of creation, as we are troubled by power politics and injustice. Right? Well, listen up….
Linking Revelation with today’s world
My first sermon in this series was “The 21st century according to Revelation.” I suggested then, and today, that in its idiosyncratic way, Revelation can give us perspective on the world we live in—not due to its predictions about the end times but due to its insights into its own times. Those insights tell us about deep structures of human life and the message of the Lamb that spoke then and continues to speak now.
An image that comes to mind is of a chair my mother found at a second hand store when I was a kid. The chair was covered with ugly green paint. She stripped the paint and uncovered the beauty that remained with the original hard wood. Then she put on a finish that enhanced the chair’s original beauty—and she had a treasure. Many interpretations of Revelation hide the original beauty of the book. I think we can strip those interpretations away and find its actual message as a great treasure.
Let’s see how this goes. I will read from Revelation 17, the story of Babylon’s comeuppance. Try to listen to it thinking of the 21st century. As I read, look for an image or an idea that you think might say something tous as 21st century Americans. They we can talk just a bit about it.
Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls said to me, “Come, I will show you the judgment of the great harlot who is seated on many waters, with whom the kings of the earth have committed fornication, and with the wine of whose fornication the inhabitants of the earth have become drunk. The angel carried me away to the wilderness. I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was full of blasphemous names and had seven heads and ten horns. The woman was clothed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and jewels and pearls, holding in her hand a golden cup full of abominations and the impurities of her fornication. On her forehead was written a name: “Babylon the great, mother of harlots and of earth’s abominations.” And I saw that the woman was drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of the witnesses to Jesus.
I saw her with amazement. The angel said, “I will tell you her mystery and of the beast with seven heads and ten horns that carries her. This beast was, and is not, and is about to ascend from the bottomless pit and go to destruction. The inhabitants of the earth will be amazed when they see the beast.
“This calls for a mind that has wisdom: the seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman is seated; also, they are seven kings. As for the beast that was and is not, it is an eighth but it belongs to the seven, and it goes to destruction. And the ten horns that you saw are ten kings who are to receive authority as kings for one hour, together with the beast. These are united in yielding their power and authority to the beast; they will make war on the Lamb, and the Lamb with conquer them, for he is Lord of lords and King of kings, and those with him are called and chosen and faithful.
And the angel said to me, “The waters that you saw, where the harlot is seated, are peoples and multitudes and nations and languages. And the ten horns that you saw, they and the beast will hate the harlot; they will make her desolate and naked; they will devour her flesh and burn her up with fire. For God has put it into their hearts to carry out God’s purpose by agreeing to give their kingdom to the beast until the words of God will be fulfilled. The woman you saw is the great city that rules over the kings of the earth.”
Is there anything here that makes you think of our world?
Let me just mention several things I thought of. Now I hate this use of “harlot” as a metaphor. Among other things, it seems to disregard the humanity of women who are sex workers. The image is simply a totally negative stereotype. It also gives the misleading impression that the concerns John has are about illicit sex.
However, in terms of what the image seems to want to communicate, we may see many parallels with our current situation—this one superpower that corrupts people from around the world to do its bidding, to serve its insatiable greed and will to dominate. And the arrogance and lack of self-awareness of this superpower. The drunkenness of power and greed that run rampant.
The image here, too, of the hostility of this one superpower toward people who challenge it, especially out of concern for the vulnerable ones on whose lifeblood the system thrives. But also, that the Lamb’s way nonetheless conquers the system (this theme is the one we are most strongly challenged to think about—does the Lamb and his way of resisting the system truly conquer in our world?).
And then the rather shocking picture at the end of the chapter. The kings who had earlier allied with the woman turn on her and destroy her. Is this a picture of the self-destructive nature of this insatiable greed and lust for power? Do we see in recent history that systems of greed and power politics collapse upon themselves? Is this happening with today’s one great superpower?
Revelation 17 as a call to seek Babylon’s well-being?
So, with Revelation 17, let me test an idea: Even with all this destruction, the picture here actually holds out hope for the city symbolized by the harlot and Babylon. This vision is a call to seek the well-being of Babylon….Get ready for some fancy footwork!
At the end of the previous chapter, chapter 16, the seventh of the full out plagues is visited on the city Babylon. The greatest earthquake the world had ever known splits Babylon into three parts. A loud voice, presumably God’s, cries out: “It is done!” (16:17).
But then, starting in 17:1, there are more visions. These additional visions are best seen as more detailed elaborations of that final plague. The point, as with all the visions, is not to predict how the world will end. The “revelation of Jesus Christ” in the book of Revelation is not a vision of the chronological end of time. The revelation of Jesus Christ, rather, is a vision of the purpose of our existence. The seventh and final plague that completes the vision is about purpose, not future predictions.
The final six chapters of the book elaborate the seventh plague. They make clear the purpose of the plagues—that Babylon would end and out of its ashes would arise the New Jerusalem. The revelation of Jesus Christ is a revelation of transformation, of healing, of the blessing of all the families of the earth. It is, I suggest, a revelation not of the literal destruction of Babylon but of the transformation of Babylon itself into the New Jerusalem.
What matters for us, I am coming to believe, is not a promise that for certain this transformation will indeed happen. Rather, it is more a statement of the means for this transformation. The visions are not so much about a future outcome as they are about a present process. And the message, as throughout the rest of the book, is that we who seek to learn from it are called to follow the Lamb resolutely wherever he goes.
One of the seven angels who had delivered the great bowl plagues in chapter 16 now speaks to John. The angel takes John to see the fate of Babylon the Great, the city of the Beast that had just received the “wine-cup of the fury of [God’s] wrath” (16:20). If we skip ahead to chapter 21, we see that this same exact angel returns for John. This time the angel shows John another city, the city of healing, the New Jerusalem. The first city is portrayed as a harlot, the second city portrayed as a bride.
These two cities make a single set of images, a point and a counter-point. John sets before his readers a stark choice. Accept the empire’s way of being in the world, follow the Beast wherever he goes, trust in wealth and the sword, and you will be at home in Babylon and meet her fate. Follow the Lamb, trust in generosity and the path of peace, and you will be at home in the New Jerusalem. We read that Babylon falls, crushed by the self-destructiveness of its ways of death. Then the New Jerusalem comes down, from heaven to earth. But we need to look closely at the dynamics here.
The distinction between Babylon and the Beast
In chapter 17, we get mixed signals. Clearly Babylon has an intimate relationship with the Beast. The Beast personifies the powers of violence, greed, and exploitation, the insatiable domination of creation and humanity’s vulnerable ones. But then, inexplicably, though predictably, the Beast turns on Babylon, the Beast hates his servant, and the “ten horns” (the Beast’s kingly minions) devour Babylon. The Powers consume and use up their human agents.
Maybe the most terrible manifestations of these dynamics in recent history are the Stalinist terror machine in the Soviet Union and the Maoist terror machine in China. They turned on many of their leaders. Through show trials and purges they massacred many who earlier had themselves killed others on behalf of the system. A much less bloody but parallel dynamic, though, is visible today in most soulless systems of domination—in the corporate world, in the political world, in the military world—the system needs to be fed, and it will devour its own over and over again.
But Revelation tells us something quite suggestive. John will see in chapter 20 the three great Powers thrown into the lake of fire—the dragon, the beast, and the false prophet. These are the Powers of evil behind the human structures that do their bidding. But Babylon is not thrown into the lake. What happens to Babylon after the Beast is destroyed?
This is what I think: It is not coincidental that the exact same angel who shows John what happens to Babylon then shows him the New Jerusalem. After the Beast is destroyed, the New Jerusalem comes down. And notice, the very kings of the earth who chapter 17 links with Babylon’s terrible “abominations and impurities” enter into the New Jerusalem, find healing, and bring into it the glory of the nations. The purple and scarlet garments that clothe the harlot in chapter 17 are cleansed to a bright white on the bride. The “gold and jewels and pearls” of chapter 17, grasped greedily in the sweaty hands of Babylon, become part of the commons in chapters 21 and 22. They offer beauty to the entire city, for all who are healed by the leaves of the tree of life.
So, contrary to the standard account of Revelation, we do not have unremitting hostility from John and John’s God toward the human city. What happens is not utter destruction of the sinful world of present-day humanity followed by the creation of something completely new and different. What happens is healing and transformation. That which is beautiful in the human project is welcomed into the New Jerusalem, the kings themselves are healed.
How does healing happen?
How does the healing and transformation happen? Answering this question is the point of the entire book, I believe. And discerning the answer to this question points to the most important message the Book of Revelation has for the 21st century.
Back in the early 1970s, the Watergate scandal shook up the leadership elite of the United States like nothing else ever has. In the investigation of Watergate, the mantra that guided those trying to unwind the tangled web of corruption and deceit was simple but quite profound: “follow the money.” That remains a core truism for understanding power and corruption in our world today, “follow the money.”
But to understand Revelation and its notion of power, I see something a bit different. “Follow the blood,” we could say. Follow the blood. Notice throughout the book how “blood” is used, whose blood is shed, and to what effect. This may seem a bit gruesome. Revelation, perhaps, is not for the squeamish. But we see something profound when we follow the blood—and this is the key to understanding Revelation 17.
We read that Babylon is “drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of the witnesses of Jesus.” Jesus is the “faithful witness.” The saints follow him wherever he goes. They resist Babylon’s corruption and injustice—for Babylon’s own sake. John has Rome in mind here as the current expression of the spirit of Babylon. Remember what Rome did to Jesus, that crucifixion was Rome’s signature way of executing rebels. So Jesus’ blood certainly is also in this cup that is making Babylon so drunk.
The “abominations” and “fornications” are most of all the ways the empire seeks to crush those who resist it, those who do seek genuine shalom, those who seek the well-being of the vulnerable ones, those who give love to the unloved, release to the captives, justice to the oppressed. The city will try to crush those who seek its shalom—at least until the city if transformed.
And this transformation is exactly what John’s vision expects to happen. In spite of the best efforts of Babylon to crush the Lamb and his witnesses, the Lamb conquers. Caesar is not the true king but the Lamb, however crazy that may appear to those who understand power in Caesar’s terms. The Lamb is the true conqueror, the King of kings.
And notice the blood here. No hint that the Harlot’s blood is shed. No hint that the kings of the earth or that the inhabitants of the earth—those who serve Babylon and ultimately serve the Beast in making war on the Lamb—there is no hint that their blood is shed. It is only the blood of the saints—and of the Lamb—that is spilled.
“Blood” stands for persevering love, consistent resistance, just deeds, staying close to the way of Jesus. So, the blood that makes Babylon drunk is these same Shalom-enhancing acts. We will see in chapter 18 that this blood is what takes Babylon down. But it does so not by shedding Babylonian blood but by breaking the hold that the Beast, the Dragon, and the False Prophet have on the inhabitants of the earth. The blood the Lamb and his followers give frees people to embrace his ways—the “conquering” is a blessing for the inhabitants of the earth, not their destruction.
How do we seek our Babylon’s shalom?
So, what does this all mean for 21st century citizens of our present day Babylon? Much of the imagery in Revelation 17 and 18 seems remarkably foresightful in capturing what the American Empire is like. The arrogance, possessiveness, exploitation of the weak, the worldwide commerce that extracts wealth from the hinterlands and puts it in the pockets of the already wealthy, the military bases beyond counting, the assumption that power as dominance is true power.
Does Revelation help us to know how to seek the shalom of our city, a different and more authentic peace than that which rests on military might?
Well, you know, I feel a stronger sense of urgency about this question now that I am a grandparent. I have thought often over the past seven years how for me becoming a grand parent was kind of like when I first hurt my back.
I went my first 40 years scarcely aware of anyone having back problems. I’m sure I heard about such, but I barely noticed. Then I strained my back terribly in what turned out to be my final basketball game. I was flat on my back for several days. And it was amazing how many people I then noticed who had back problems. I started hearing (actually hearing) stories of back pain—and I started being able to empathize.
It’s been similar with Eli’s birth and then LouLou’s, I began to notice how common grand-parenting is. I can’t say I did notice it much before. And now I feel it when I hear people worrying about what kind of world their grand children will be part of.
I was especially thinking about that this week in face of a variety of news reports. There are the stories out of southern California of a vigilante police officer run amok. These stories mark how we edge ever closer to becoming an authentic police state with the terrifying use of military tactics and ruthless, even murderous, force to track down and eliminate this vigilante—due process be damned.
Then the ever-apparent impact of climate change—which some of our Shalom friends are in DC today to address. All time records for heat. Our recent crazy temperatures—days that alternate between extra cold and extra warm. And, then, reports of drones that kill more children in Afghanistan and hover in the sky over Oakland, California. Presidential kill lists. American citizens assassinated anywhere in the world by Americans.
Whose world is this?
I think often of the words of folksinger Jim Page’s song: “Whose world is this? What kind of world will our children [or, I now say, grandchildren] receive, after all is said and done? What kind of creed have we come to believe, that they may never receive one? What kind of creed are we to believe, if they are to receive one?”
I get some comfort from Revelation when I think about these things. I believe, actually, the main point of Revelation is to give us a kind of “creed” or teaching for creating a world for our grandchildren. As I said, I don’t think Revelation should be read as an ironclad promise that everything will turn out okay in the end no matter what humanity does in the meantime. More so, I think Revelation tells us of the path we must follow in order for things to turn out okay.
It’s a simple teaching: Follow the Lamb wherever he goes. If Babylon is to fall, or, better, if Babylon is to be transformed, it is through the faithful witness, the willingness to sacrifice one’s own blood, the consistent and persevering way of love and compassion, resistance to injustice—this path alone will take care of Babylon.
And, to give this teaching some heft, Revelation links the Lamb closely with the one on the throne. This confession reminds us that to follow that Lamb is to go with the grain of the universe. To follow the Lamb unites means and ends, pragmatism and principle. This is the only path that will work—but it is also intrinsically life giving.
The season of Lent is a great time to remind ourselves that to follow the way of Jesus is to resist, to overcome, and to transform Babylon. Jesus’ path to the cross—a path he faced head on and calls upon us to join—is the path of self-suffering love. It commits us to the way of peace even in the face of siren calls to take up the sword. It commits us to trust in God for wholeness, not in the allures of Empire. And it promises us that following such a path not only heads us toward wholeness, but is wholeness.