[This is the fourth 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 3:1-22—Shalom Mennonite Congregation—January 22, 2012
So, what is the book of Revelation really about? Since it has been two months since my last sermon, you all have probably forgotten….Let me suggest one word that I believe is at the center of the book: Power.
We may read Revelation as a book of conflicts—the Beast vs. the Lamb, the Holy Spirit vs. the False Prophet, Babylon vs. the New Jerusalem. The question is: Who is more powerful? Which is actually the question: What kind of power is more powerful —the power to conquer through domination or the power to conquer through self-giving love? On this question hangs the fate of the earth, perhaps we could say. Certainly, for John the writer of Revelation, on this question hangs the fate of the churches.
The seven messages that make up chapters two and three, the first of Revelation’s many visions, set the book’s agenda. In my last sermon, I talked about “power in weakness”—how the little church in Smyrna, besieged, suffering persecution, with little visible power, actually was praised above all the other churches and proclaimed to be rich indeed.
Today, I will focus on “weakness in power”—how the big church in Laodicea, wealthy, comfortable, lacking in nothing, actually was condemned above all the other churches and proclaimed to be “wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.”
Let me read from chapter 3 of Revelation. As I read, think about how power, including riches and wealth, how is power being presented here—What does Jesus recognize as characteristic of true power? And what are seen as actually expressions of weakness? Who’s powerful—and not? Who’s rich—and not?
To the angel of the church in Sardis write: These are the words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars: I know your works; you have a name of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen what remains. Remember what you received and heard; obey it, and repent. If you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know when. Yet a few of you have not soiled your clothes; they will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy. If you conquer, you will be clothed like them in white robes, and I will not blot your name out of the book of life; I will confess your name before my Father and before the angels.
To Philadelphia write: These are the words of the one who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens. I know your works. I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name. I will make those of the synagogue of Satan bow down before your feet. They will learn that I have loved you. Because you have kept my word of patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial that will test the inhabitants of the earth. I am coming soon; hold fast to what you have. If you conquer, I will make you a pillar in the temple of my God; you will never go out of it. I will write on you the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem that comes down from heaven, and my own new name.
To Laodicea write: The words of the faithful and true witness, the origin of God’s creation: I know your works; you are neither hot nor cold. Because you are lukewarm, I am about to spit you out of my mouth. For 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. Therefore I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire so that you may be rich; and white robes to clothe you and to keep the shame of your nakedness from being seen; and salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see. I reprove and discipline those whom I love. Be earnest, therefore, and repent. Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me. To the one who conquers I will give a place with me on my throne, just as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.
So, what do you think? What can we say about power as presented here?
Empire in Revelation
As I have been working with these seven messages to churches in Revelation 2 and 3 this time around, I have been struck more than before with the sense that in these messages, the Roman Empire is everywhere. Each of the seven cities was a center for devotion to the Empire—shrines, temples, monuments. The various strengths and weaknesses in the congregations that the messages speak to are in some sense related to how the congregations navigate being in the midst of empire.
Smyrna and Philadelphia are both small, struggling, fragile congregations. They suffer in large part because their people refused to go along with the Empire’s civil religion, even at the cost of their jobs or more. Thyatira and Pergamum have many who resist bending the knee to Rome. But these congregations also have within them strong voices for going along. Now, in chapter three, we encounter two congregations where the struggle seems to be about over. Sardis has the appearance of being alive, but is actually dead. And Laodicea….
It is no accident that the message to the congregation in Laodicea is the last of the seven. Here, what we see is that the church has, in a genuine sense, actually become Rome. The Laodicean congregation has absorbed the values of Empire so totally that there is no longer any resistance. The Laodicean Christians simply parrot the language of the Empire. In this sense, Laodicea anticipates what will be true for most Christians in later generations. When the soldiers of the Emperor Constantine march to battle the “pagans” in the 4th century, they are led by banners picturing the cross. What had been a symbol of Rome’s hatred of the way of Jesus, the symbol of crucifixion, the Empire’s violence against God’s own son, became a symbol for God’s blessing on the violence of Empire. And today, so many American churches have right up front in their worship spaces a powerful symbol of imperial violence—the American flag.
How does the Laodicean church understand itself? “I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing” (3:17). How does the Roman Empire, in Revelation shown as a great harlot, understand itself? “I rule as a queen; I am no widow, and I will never see grief” (17:7). In both cases, in the visions of Revelation, these smug affirmations of self-sufficiency and autonomy, are turned upside down. The powerful are shown to be weak.
What is it that Empire seeks? What is it that the power of domination, the power of wealth, the power of infinite destructiveness through military hardware—what does this power seek? “To need nothing. To never see grief.”
Empire convinces people to consent to its rule with the promise that those who go along will need nothing, they will never see grief. Power as security. Power as control. Power as certainty. Big promises. But, Empire must crack down, hard on those who challenge its claims. Why? Because such challenges might reveal that the Empire’s “power” actually is weakness. Witness the police brutality in response to the Occupy movement.
The Failure of Domination
One example of how the power of domination is revealed to be weakness is a story James Scott tells in his book, Seeing Like a State. By the late eighteenth century, the scientific revolution was in full sway in western Europe. It found expression in humans relating to the natural world; for example, how people related to the forests of western Europe. People in power came to focus almost entirely on the economic value of forests—the commercial products that could be extracted from the forests, possible tax revenues, ways forests could be exploited to yield profits. “Forests” were no longer thought of as homes to a whole variety of life forms living in ages-old harmony.
The vocabulary changed. “Nature” became “natural resources,” with an emphasis on usefulness for human exploitation. Trees that were understood to have economic value became known as “timber,” while those without such value were labeled “trash trees” or “underbrush.” I remember, much more recently, this same language when I worked in the woods as a logger out in Oregon.
“Scientific forestry” emerged at this time and deeply influenced the landscape of western Europe. In the late 1700s, foresters remade Germany’s forests. They sought a more easily quantified forest through careful cultivation. They cleared the underbrush, reduced the numbers of species (often to monoculture), and did planting simultaneously and in straight rows on large tracts. Eventually, the old-growth forests were transformed into truly “scientific forests,” neat and tidy mono-cultural, even-aged forests.
The initial results from remaking Germany’s forests were spectacular. On an aesthetic level, the regularity and neatness of the appearance of the new forests resonated deeply with the values of modern Europe. At first, the new forests provided economic rewards as well. The Norway spruce became the tree of choice due to its hardiness, rapid growth, and valuable wood.
It took time for the effects of this type of forestry to become apparent. Only after the planting of the second rotation of the spruce did the problems become clear. The first generation had grown well because it benefited from the rich soil left by the old-growth forest in all its diversity. However, after that deposit of nutrients had been exhausted, the output of the forest shrank dramatically. A new German term was coined—Waldsterben (forest death)—to describe the effects.
Weakness in power….We aren’t always as much in control as we think. I recently found the tape of Kathleen and my wedding from years and years and years ago. The impressive thing was that the entire service, from prelude to postlude, took seventeen minutes. I guess we were in a hurry. I tried to script the entire thing—saying several times to our friend Karsten, the MC: “Don’t say ‘welcome,’ that’s too cliché. Say, we’re so happy you all are here or something like that.” So, on the tape, the prelude ends, and Karsten steps to the mike. “On behalf of Kathleen and Ted, welcome.”…I did still manage to have fun, even if I wasn’t in control, even if my power was weak….
The Critique of Laodicea
So, Jesus here in Revelation 3 is fairly ruthless in his treatment of the Laodicean congregation. It is a useless church, he says. Imagine being thirsty and taking a deep draught of what you expect to be a refreshing beverage. But it’s lukewarm, kind of like old bath water. Blecchh!! You have to spit it out. What is this stuff??
This message reflects quite a bit of knowledge about the city of Laodicea. It had to pipe its water from a long distance away and when the water arrived it was lukewarm. It had to be heated or cooled to be usable.
The city of Laodicea was known for several particular characteristics. It was wealthy, much more than surrounding cities. Its wealth, came in part, from its textile industry, and in part because it was a medical center that trained physicians and produced a widely used treatment for eye problems. Presumably, the people in the congregation themselves directly benefitted from Laodicean wealth.
So, when it comes to the warnings in the message, John’s Jesus could not have been more cutting. You claim to need nothing, he sneers, but in reality you are wretched and pitiable. You are poor. You are naked. You can’t see.
The power you hoard and depend on—power that allows you to rest comfortably in the secure arms of the Pax Romana, in the secure arms of the domination system that Empire creates—this power is nothing. In fact, it’s worse than nothing. Because you believe the lies of the False Prophet. You can not, by brute force and coercion create genuine security and hope. All you can create is an illusion—like the illusion in Germany’s Black Forest that through “scientific forestry” they could create an economic gravy train without end. It didn’t last long—nor did Rome’s “griefless” domination—nor did the self-sufficiency of the Laodicean congregation.
We see this same dynamic first hand in the United States today. After World War II, the U.S. certainly could say, “I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.” Unlike the other great powers whose economies were devastated, ours prospered. And we stood on the moral high ground as the great democracy that had stopped the terrible tyrants of Germany and Japan. But the U.S. did not use this power, prosperity, and prestige to move toward a world order based on peace and cooperation. We set out right away on a project of domination. We were wealthy and powerful enough to retain our dominant status for a generation or so. But things have been spiraling out of control for some time. We don’t seem to be able to free ourselves from the tenacious hold of militarism even as the military-industrial complex moves the entire nation to disaster.
Hope for Laodiceans
The book of Revelation, though, for all its hostility toward the Beast, for all its urgency to challenge its readers decisively to turn from weakness in power toward power in weakness, to turn from the coercive conquering modeled by Babylon to the conquering through healing love modeled by the New Jerusalem—and make no mistake, Revelation’s urgency is genuine and must be embraced. Still, Revelation is not without hope even for the kings of the earth—as we will see later in the book.
Most importantly, though, as the letter to Laodicea itself tells us, and as we will see when we move on to Revelation chapters 4 and 5, the book holds out hope for the Laodiceans of the world. John’s agenda is to heal more than to condemn.
Let’s look at the cutting imagery in the message. Laodicea was known for its wealth, its production of textiles, and its medical treatments, including especially eye treatments. So, the message emphasizes to the church its poverty, its nakedness, and its blindness. But why make these pointed criticisms? Not mainly to score rhetorical points. Not mainly to condemn.
The message does challenge the Laodicean self-sufficiency, naming it in terms of false confidence in wealth, in textile production, in medical care. But John wants to make clear the Lamb’s offer—Jesus makes available for “purchase” “gold refined by fire” that will give the Laodiceans authentic wealth. He makes available “white robes” that will genuinely clothe those who put them on. He makes available “salve to anoint your eyes” that will provide genuine sight.
The next vision of the book, in chapters four and five, follows directly from this message to the Laodiceans. The danger for all the congregations is becoming indistinguishable from their surrounding culture. In the United States, the danger has been that Christianity becomes inextricably identified with the American empire. Then it seems that the only way to oppose the empire is to reject Christian faith. What a terrible tragedy. Not least because so many American Christians witneaffirmconquering by coercion rather than conquering by love and compassion. Not least because in rejecting Christianity, many people of good will fail to learn from the message of Revelation about the genuine power that shapes the universe.
But the seven messages end with a call to open the door to a different notion of power and hope and security and wealth. We can embrace these metaphors from the message to Laodicea: Use the eye-salve that provides genuine sight that will allow you to recognize that empire equals death and that to resist empire leads to life. And open the door to the one who embodies this life—as we will see in the next vision, the one whose self-sacrifice and nonviolent resistance leads to resurrection and celebration.
So, this, then, is where we are so far in the story that Revelation tells. The first vision, chapters one, two, and three, warns of accepting the worldview of empire and twisting Christian faith to fit with that worldview. Such acceptance leads to death. But with the warning comes witness to faithfulness that is possible. With the warning comes witness to genuine wealth that is available to those who resist the Empire story and embrace a different kind of story. The story of the Lamb. Our next vision will go deeper into genuine power and show the one on the throne and the faithful Lamb, already worshiped as the bringer of healing and the giver of life. Then will we turn to the other, more notorious visions, that deconstruct empire as a way of life. But the affirmation of hope and blessing precede the visions of chaos.
The message of weakness in power ultimately is secondary to the message of power in weakness. Amen.