[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. Continue reading
[See notes on Revelation 10]
At the end of Revelation 10, John eats the scroll that the “mighty angel” holds in his right hand, a symbolic act echoing Ezekiel 2–3, where the prophet accepts his commission to witness. Here, John is told, after he eats the bittersweet scroll, “You must prophesy again about many peoples and nations and kings” (10:11). So, when we turn to chapter 11, we know that John is “again” presenting insights about the ways of the Lamb in the violent and chaotic world of his readers—a world dominated by the Roman Empire.
Revelation 11:1-14—The two witnesses
John is given a “measuring rod” with which to “measure the temple of God and the altar and those who worship there” (11:1). This seems to symbolize a kind of protection that is not offered to “the court outside the temple” which is “given over to the nations” (11:2). It seems doubtful that this “protection” means that followers of the Lamb are being promised that they won’t suffer. More likely, it’s simply a way of affirming the perseverance of the witnessing community even in the midst of suffering and trauma for faithful ones at the hands of the empire. Battered and bruised but not overcome.
Another symbol for this witnessing community is the “two witnesses” (11:3). These witnesses are actually “two olive trees” and “two lampstands”—both images used elsewhere for communities of faith. They will “prophesy for one thousands two hundred sixty days”—that is, three and a half years (or forty two months). This is the “broken time” (half of seven years) that in Revelation symbolizes time in history, the time of the plagues, the time remaining before the New Jerusalem comes down.
So, what we have is a kind of recapitulation of the plague visions (where the nations “trample over the holy city for forty months,” 11:2) but with an added dimensions. The “two witnesses” are essentially the same actors in this drama as the “conquerors” of the seven messages in chapters two and three. That is, they carry out the vocation Jesus gives to all his followers—to witness to his way amidst the plagues. Continue reading