[This is the first 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 11, 2011
I have a memory I can’t get rid of. It’s from now over forty years ago, but it remains etched, vividly, in my mind’s eye. I grew up in the tiny town of Elkton, in southwestern Oregon’s Coast Range. The next town 14 miles away, our archrival, is Drain. (We told this joke: Why is Oregon so wet? It only has one small Drain.)
We drove over to play them in basketball my junior year in high school. Drain was bigger and they were in the next higher classification (for small schools instead of tiny schools). So this was big for us. And we beat them in an intense game, by two points.
I should add here I have another vivid memory from that night. My dad was our coach; he coached for 29 years. In all those years, he got one technical foul called on him. It was that night. And it was because of me. The refs called a foul on me, a bad call of course. And my dad hopped off the bench to protest. His only technical ever. I realized then that he really did care about me.
As you can imagine, on the bus ride home we were happy. But it rained hard; the road is windy. As our bus approached one of the very few straight places on the road a car roared up from behind, horn blaring, and speeded past. We recognized the car, the Zosel sisters, recent grads. They celebrated too, waving madly at our bus as they streaked by. Then, just as they pulled ahead, illumined by the bus’s headlights, the car began to spin out of control on the slick asphalt. And everything went into ultra slow motion.
We watched horrified as the car hurtled off the road—inch by inch it seemed. Whoa….Now, it turns out that everybody was okay. Even the car wasn’t damaged. But for that split second it was a nightmare, as we watched the car wreck, front row seats but helpless to do anything about it. That’s the image forever imprinted on my mind.
Most of us may have felt something similar that morning ten years ago, September 11, 2001, especially when World Trade Center towers collapsed. But I have that feeling these days, too, in thinking about a lot of things in our world. We watch, helpless it seems, as so much spins out of control. I’m reminded of that car wreck all those many years ago when these scary, even horrific things happen, with more on the way.
Thinking about the Book of Revelation in Interesting Times (Like Today)
What an interesting time to think about the Book of Revelation. Some of you know that I believe that Revelation stands firmly on the side of peace. Contrary to Revelation’s cultured despisers, and contrary to the Left Behinders, and contrary to the timid and fearful people in the pew who simply think Revelation is too scary and confusing to be worth paying attention to—I believe, and I want to show you all in this series of sermons I begin today, that Revelation indeed provides extraordinary insights for those of us who want to respond creatively—and peaceably—to the car wreck we are seeing unfold before our eyes in our world right now.
Today I want mainly to set the stage, to think a bit about the car wreck we are seeing, and to suggest one element of Revelation that might help us out—Revelation’s vision of worship. So, first, let’s think about evidence of our present car-wreck situation. I have boiled Revelation down to a three-minute reading. As I read this quick mini-Readers Digest version of Revelation, think of examples in our world right now that might support my car wreck analogy. What are ways that it does seem that we are watching a car wreck? And imagine how Revelation might speak to us.
The revelation of Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, firstborn of the dead, and ruler of the kings of the earth. To the church at Philadelphia, “I know you have little power, yet you have kept my word and not denied my name. Because of your steadfast endurance, I will make you a pillar in God’s temple.” And to the church at Laodicea, “You say, ‘I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing. You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.”
I saw the right hand of the one seated on the throne holding a scroll. I began to weep because no one could open this scroll. But I was told, do not weep, the Lion of the tribe of Judah can open the scroll. Then I saw a Lamb standing as if it had been slain. He went and took the scroll from the one who was seated on the throne. The creatures and multitudes from all the nations cry out: “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain.”
Then I saw the Lamb open one of the seals to the scroll—and terrible riders came forth: warfare, famine, and horrific disease. Then, I saw a great multitude that no one could count from every nation crying out, “salvation belongs to our God and to the Lamb.”
Then, I saw a beast rising out of the sea. The whole earth followed the beast and worshiped the dragon who had given his authority to the beast. “Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?” Then, I looked, and there was the Lamb standing on Mount Zion. With him were a multitude numbered, symbolically, 144,000 (that is, the multitude from every nation). They sing a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and before the elders.
Then I saw foul spirits, coming from the mouth of the dragon, go abroad to the kings of the whole world to assemble them for battle against God. Then I saw the seventh angel pour his bowl into the air. A loud voice came from the throne, saying “It is done!” God remembered great Babylon, who received the fury of God’s wrath. Babylon will be thrown down—“your merchants were the magnates of the earth, and all nations were deceived by your sorcery. In you was found blood, of prophets and of saints, and of all who were slaughtered on earth.”
Then I heard the voice of a great multitude, “Let us rejoice, the marriage of the Lamb has come. His bride has made herself ready; to her it has been granted to be clothed with fine linen, bright and pure.” Then (and finally) I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven. The city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamb is the Lamb. The nations shall walk by its light, and the kings of the whole world will bring their glory into it. Amen.
So, what are some examples of the kinds of car wrecks we see happening?…
The Significance of September 11, 2001
Because it’s September 11 today, the tenth anniversary of one of the landmark events of modern history; because of my own interests for years and especially this past, lamentably just ended, sabbatical year; but also because of its direct relevance to the imagery of Revelation—I want to focus on the part of our car wreck that relates to national security issues: that is, militarism, nationalism, international conflict, power politics, wars and rumors of wars. What’s going wrong, how might we respond, where is God in the midst of this—and what possibly could such a strange ancient text such as Revelation have to say that’s relevant?
So, what happened ten years ago? On one level, the answer is obvious. A handful of resourceful guerilla warriors flew three planes directly into two of the hubs of power in the international economic and military order: the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in northern Virginia. Thousands were killed. Terms like war on terrorism, homeland security, weapons of mass destruction, and the axis of evil became commonplace. Everything changed, it has often been said….
Well. I’m not so sure. The same dynamics of payback have been all too present for a long, long time. The event probably most commonly linked with 9/11 was the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor sixty years earlier. But one clear parallel has not often been mentioned. The Japanese attack, like 9/11, led to the deaths of around 3,000 people. Four years later, after approving the use of two atomic bombs on Japanese cities—immediately ending well over 100,000 lives with tens of thousands lingering deaths to come—president Harry Truman defended the action, in part, this way: “Nobody is more disturbed over the use of atomic bombs than I am but I also was greatly disturbed over the unwarranted attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor…. The only language they seem to understand is the one we have been using to bombard them. When you have to deal with a beast you have to treat him as a beast.”
The events of 9/11 and the subsequent response by the United States were revelatory, but not in presenting new realities. Not in actually changing the world. Rather, 9/11 revealed just how bound up our nation has become in a spiral of violence.
Back in 1937, the US military was the 16th biggest in the world, nestled between two other global powers—Portugal and Romania. We had a president, Franklin Roosevelt, constrained by democracy from pushing the U.S. into a war he desperately wanted to enter. He accepted the constitutional requirement for a formal war declaration and couldn’t get it—until the Japanese made their fatal move and bombed Pearl Harbor.
After World War II, never again would the US allow its military to be anything but the world’s most powerful. Never again would presidents allow democracy to stop them from going to war—formal declarations be damned. We haven’t had one in seventy years now. With World War II came the creation of permanent institutions that exist for the sake of war and preparation for war—the Pentagon, the nuclear weapons program, the CIA. None of these existed in 1937. But they came to dominate, as the US expanded our global military footprint in ways that would have caused America’s early leaders to turn over in their graves—such as John Quincy Adams, who stated, “America does not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” Adams’ words are ancient history now.
The lesson of 9/11, I would suggest, is just how strong the dominance of the powers of militarism has become in our country. And, this dominance has been cultivated and affirmed almost all the way across the political spectrum. 9/11 and its aftermath simply brought closer to the surface the patterns well-established in the previous six decades. The United States simply seems incapable of responding with creativity to threats, imagined and actual, to its security. We seem enslaved to a spiral of violence—including, sadly, our current administration.
“National Security” as a Spiritual Issue
Indeed, we are talking about a spiritual issue here. An issue in the arena of the principalities and powers, the spiritual dynamics that shape our world’s structures and beliefs. Why is it that when so many people long for peace—remember the remarkable outpouring of mass sentiment against the threatened American invasion of Iraq back in the early days of 2003—why is peace so difficult to attain?
On this point, we might have something to learn from Revelation. In face of this national security car wreck, we might actually find in Revelation a call to constructive engagement, not a call to escape. We might actually find in Revelation a call to transformation not a call to condemnation. We might actually find Revelation to be a resource for empowerment not a reinforcement for passivity. At least this is what I think.
Why do I think so? Maybe one reason is simply that I am desperate. In face of this national security car wreck, my imagination needs recharging. I do feel something like that kick-in-the-gut kind of horror I felt 40 years ago as I watched my friends’ car spin out of control in the Oregon rain. And I am way less hopeful now of a happy ending. Can we imagine a world of peace and with that imagery work for such a world even in face of car wrecks? Or will a failure of imagination reinforce our inclination toward passivity and fatalism? We desperately need something to empower us in face of our grim reality.
Revelation was written to address precisely this need. I don’t want at all to suggest there is any validity to the future-prophetic view. This view, pushed by writers such as Hal Lindsey and Tim LaHaye, claims that Revelation was basically meaningless until certain alleged prophecies such as Israel’s nationhood began to be fulfilled. It was written, they say, to give us a blueprint for End Time events. That’s not at all what I have in mind when I suggest Revelation was written to address our current time. It’s something very different.
Worship and Politics (According to Revelation)
Revelation was written to address the imaginations of first-century followers of Jesus. But it did so in ways that are still relevant. Those Christians lived in the midst of the world’s one great superpower, the Roman Empire. And it was actually pretty easy for them to live fairly comfortably (remember the words to the church at Laodicea, “you say, ‘I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing’”). But the Empire’s “peace” rested on a bedrock of profound violence—the dynamics of oppression, economic exploitation, domination. But this violence could be ignored.
For Revelation, true followers of the Lamb will not ignore the trail of blood. They will recognize the violence of Rome, and they will oppose it—even should that opposition disrupt their comfort. This is the basic message: you have two ways of being in the world (with many gradations, to be sure): the way of the Lamb or the way of the Beast; the way of compassion or the way of domination. Should you choose the way of compassion, you have no assurance of success and obvious achievement. But you will sing the deepest song of the universe.
Revelation contains, amidst its visions of plagues, judgments, and general wrathful chaos, a series of visions of worship, scattered throughout the book. Chapters five, seven, 11, 14, 15, and 19 contain such visions, important visions.
In chapter seven, right after the first series of plagues characterized by warfare and mass injustice, a multitude worships, from all nations, beyond counting. But they are not just anyone. Who are these, the angel asks John—and then answers his own question: The ones who went through a time of trauma due to their commitment to the way of peace, the ones who resisted the power politics of Rome and its trail of blood, the ones who share in Jesus’ own witness of self-giving love that countered the violence of the kings of the earth.
And again, in chapter 14, we have a response to the terrible picture of chapter 13. That chapter shows a seemingly all-powerful Beast running roughshod, irresistible in his domination. “Who is like the beast and who can fight against it?” The first answer to John’s readers is not to “fight against it” with its own methods. “If you kill with the sword, with the sword you must be killed.” But then comes something else.
“There was the Lamb, standing on Mount Zion! And with him were 144,000 who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads….They sing a new song before the throne….These follow the Lamb wherever he goes.” There are good reasons to see this vision as portraying the same worship we read of in chapter seven—the 144,000 as a symbolic way to speak of the countless multitude from all nations.
This vision of worship contrasts the way of the Beast in chapter 13 with the way of those who follow the Lamb wherever he goes in chapter 14. That is what the worship in Revelation is about. Political choices that shape ways of living in the present world. Worship is not a religious act that unites people who live ethically contradictory lives—those who live like the Lamb sharing a hymnal with those who live like the Beast. Worship empowers the living of the way of peace amidst the plagues, actually resisting the domination of the Beast.
Now, there is much, much more to say as we try to make sense of Revelation. There is much, much more to say as we try to apply it to our present challenges, how we respond to our current car wrecks. But reflecting on these worship visions is a good place to start.
Worship in Revelation has to do with discernment, it has to do with ethical clarity, it has to do with the Lamb and with others who seek to follow the way of peace. Worship in Revelation empowers peaceable people against the violence of the Powers.
A wonderful recent documentary—“Freedom Riders”—witnesses to this kind of empowerment. In the early 1960s, Civil Rights activists, mostly college students, placed themselves right in the middle of the racist deep South to stand for justice. In the face of terrible hostility, death-dealing hostility, they stood together, singing powerful songs of freedom. And changing the world.