[This is the tenth 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—October 14, 2012—Revelation 13:1–14:5
In my sermon series on Revelation we are now to chapter 13. We will spend some time with one of the most famous of the characters in the book—the Beast that rises out of the sea. There is something important to remember as we think about this character—obviously highly symbolic. With whatever it is that is being symbolized, not everyone would see it as beastly. One person’s beast might be another person’s buddy.
Beast or Buddy?
I think of my tiny sweetheart of a dog, little Sophie. Talk about gentle, sweet, affectionate, and kind. But to our cats, Zorro, Silver, and Ani, Sophie is most certainly the Beast. Vicious, aggressive, loud, and obnoxious. Sweetheart? Bah!!
Likewise, in Revelation there would have been people in the book’s audience with a quite positive view of what John is calling the Beast. John’s agenda, in part, is to challenge his readers to recognize the Beast here as a beast.
And thus he challenges us. What is like the Beast of Revelation in our world? Does this vision speak to us at all?
Before I answer these questions, I want to read a condensed version of Revelation 13:1–14:5. When I finish I would like to spend a few moments doing a kind of word association exercise. When you hear “beast” what other words come to mind? Think both of what seems to be going on in the text and what associations the word might have in our time and place.
I saw a beast rising out of the sea. It had ten horns and seven heads. On its horns were ten crowns. On its heads were blasphemous names. It was like a leopard, its feet like a bear’s, and its mouth like a lion’s. The dragon gave the beast his power, throne and great authority. One of its heads seemed to have received a death-blow, but its wound had been healed. In amazement the whole earth followed the beast and worshiped the dragon and the beast, saying, “Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?”
The beast uttered haughty, blasphemous words, and exercised authority for forty-two months. It blasphemed God, made war on the saints, and conquered them. It exercised authority over every tribe and people and language and nation. All the inhabitants of the earth will worship it, everyone whose name has not been written in the book of life of the Lamb that was slaughtered from the foundation of the world. Let everyone who has an ear listen: If you are to be taken captive, into captivity you go; if you kill by the sword, with the sword you must be killed. Here is a call for the endurance of the saints.
Then I saw another beast rise out of the earth; it had two horns like a lamb and it spoke like a dragon. It makes the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast. It performs great signs. By the signs it performs on behalf of the beast, it deceives the inhabitants of the earth. It tells them to make an image for the beast that had been wounded by the sword and yet lived; and it gave breath to the image of the beast so that image could speak and cause those who would not worship the beast to be killed. Also it marks all, small and great, rich and poor, free and slave, on the right hand or forehead, so that no one can buy or sell who does not have the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name. This calls for wisdom: let everyone with understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a person: six hundred sixty-six.
Then I looked, and there was the Lamb, standing on Mount Zion! And with him were one hundred forty-four thousand who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads. I heard a voice from heaven like the sound of many waters and like loud thunder, and like the sound of harpists playing on their harps. They sing a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and before the elders. Only the one hundred forty-four thousand who have been redeemed from the earth could learn this song. It is these who have remained pure and are virgins; these follow the Lamb wherever he goes. They have been redeemed from humankind as first fruits for God and the Lamb. In their mouth no lie was found; they are blameless. (13:1–14:5)
So, when I say “beast” what pops into your head?
A vision of the Beast’s power
One of the things we get from this vision is an overwhelming sense of the Beast’s power. Almost certainly what John most of all has in mind is the Roman Empire. The Empire that had conquered most of John’s known world. The Empire that had executed Jesus. The Empire that had executed many other prophets. The Empire that had destroyed the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. The Empire that demanded of its subjects reverence and loyalty bordering on and actually crossing the line into religious worship.
The Empire that, it seemed, brooked no opposition. The Beast is set to wreak havoc for 42 months. These 42 months, a period of time mentioned often in Revelation, symbolize historical time. The time in the present where we live. If John’s vision had ended with chapter 13, it would indeed be a vision of despair. And no wonder people in John’s churches would also have wanted to give the Empire their homage and grant it the loyalty it demanded. They likely would have felt that resistance was futile.
But when we look at this vision we need to go on to chapter 14—and ultimately to the end of the book. John’s agenda is not to counsel despair. Nor is it John’s agenda to give comfort to those in his audience who don’t think the Beast is so beastly.
But in John’s time it would have been hard to find hope. I think we maybe can identify. I’ve talked about my writing project that looks at the moral legacy of World War II. Flowing out of that war, we can see a pretty strong trajectory over the past 70 years of more wars and rumors of wars and preparation for wars—including wars that could end life on earth. Even when we elect presidents who seem inclined to resist that trajectory, they don’t. The Beast of militarism only roars ever louder.
A bit over one hundred years ago, the great German social thinker Max Weber wrote despairingly about what he called the “iron cage” of technology, of impersonal “progress,” of expanding corporate capitalism, that increasingly shrinks and compromises human freedom and self-determination. I think if Weber were around today he would also add the dynamics of environmental disasters, present and looming in the foreseeable future. Some Beast or another seems pretty powerful yet in our day.
But John’s agenda is not to counsel despair. Precisely the opposite. John’s agenda is to empower his audience. He wants his people to be empowered to resist, to bear witness, even (remarkably) to celebrate in the present.
Celebration as resistance
It is really interesting, in stories of resistance to various Beasts of the 20th century, how important a role celebration played in undermining the domination system. In Denmark during World War II, people gathered for public hymn sings that served to undermine the attempts by the Nazi occupiers to define their reality. The black church in the American south during the Civil Rights movement provided a place to praise and celebrate and find solidarity and to be reminded that the white so-called Christians did not have the power to define God’s will for them. In South Africa, the anti-apartheid movement also found ways for public celebrations as did the opposition to the Pinochet regime in Chile. And many, many others—probably wherever beasts were resisted.
I think the celebrations scattered throughout Revelation play a similar role. And John promises before the book is over that the witness will be fruitful and the celebrations will not be simply whistling in the dark. They will in fact help lead to the healing of creation, healing of the nations, healing even of the kings of the earth (the human beings most enslaved to the Beast).
How can this be?
During the vision of chapter 13, the narrator cries out, “who can fight against the Beast? Who can resist it? Who can stand against it?” In chapter 14 we get an answer. “Then I looked, and there was the Lamb, standing on Mt. Zion!” And standing with the Lamb are the 144,000. The Lambs fights and wins—and with him the 144,000. And they sing. And they celebrate. The overwhelming power of the Beast in chapter 13 actually turns out to underscore the victory and celebration of the Lamb and his followers. Things seem so bad; this makes the triumph all the more striking.
The vision of 14:1-5 transforms the meaning of chapter 13. Now we see that the Beast scenes are not a true picture of reality. They show only the surface. Who stand against the beast? Who can fight against it? The Lamb and the 144,000. But who is this 144,000? This is one of those numbers in Revelation that has gone down in infamy—along with a number we also see here, 666. The number 666 is the number of the beast; we could say the 144,000 is one of the numbers of the Lamb.
The number of the Beast
Let’s look at the 666 first. It is important to notice the setting. The beast is an anti-Lamb (even though the actual word antichrist is not used here). With the rise of end times theology in the past 150 years that sees Revelation being about predicting the future, many have sought to identify who this character is or will be. The Kaiser during World War I. Mussolini or Hitler during World War II. Nikita Khrushchev during the Cold War. Saddam Hussein. Notice these were all enemies of the United States.
As a political progressive, I once thought I had it figured out—a world leader with six letters in each of his name. Know who I mean? Ronald Wilson Reagan. The problem is, each of these people kept dying—and staying dead. The true antichrist might seem to die, but he would recover, miraculously. No one has done this yet.
Of course, I actually see this number much more symbolically and not about a present or future evil world leader. I think the number 666 symbolizes something more general—human culture organized to resist God. The six is just short of the number of wholeness (that is, the number seven); three sixes emphasize the failure. This actually is not a very important symbol in the story—the main point is the Beast, and seeing the Beast as beast not as benefactor. Regardless of what number we give it.
A vision of plentitude
The number 144,000 is more important, though. Often this has been seen as a limited number; only we specially called are in; the rest of you unwashed masses are out. Good for us, too bad for you. But the actual meaning of this number is different.
Back in chapter seven we learned what it refers to. We are told there in two different ways about one group of people. It’s another celebration scene, in the middle of the plague visions. John presents a vision of people celebrating their salvation with the Lamb. First he describes what he hears—which is a group of 144,000, twelve thousand from each of Israel’s twelve tribes. But then he sees what this group truly is: “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (7:9).
So, this is not a limited number of specially chosen people who stand with the Lamb—it is this countless multitude of people from all nations. And this counters the picture in chapter 13 of the Beast being given authority over “every tribe and people and language and nation” (13:7). The Beast’s authority actually is an illusion—because the Lamb can stand against it. The Lamb can fight against it. With the Lamb’s followers. And celebration and healing are present—not despair and an irresistible iron cage.
The use of the 144,000 symbol here in chapter 14 has an added dimension. The 144,000 is an army. Organized, actually, to fight the beast. But—and this is a huge “but,” this is the “but” that determines our view of what the entire book is about—but they are organized not to fight with swords but to fight with the same weapons as the Lamb—self-giving love. We need to remember the master vision of the whole book: Revelation five. The Lamb is the one who can open the scroll, not as a mighty warrior but as a self-giving healer.
So, then, the meaning of our passage, 13:1–14:5 is a call to resist and a reminder that indeed such resistance does work. And the passage gives us guidance for this fight. How do we fight? Let me note three clues.
See the beast as beast
First, simply see the beast as beast. Remember, many in John’s audience took comfort in dividing their loyalty between the Lamb and the Empire. They did not see the Empire as beastly. So, the many Christians throughout history who willingly join their nation’s call to war and preparation for war likewise divide their loyalties.
John’s message is disbelieve in Empire. Disbelieve in militarism. Disbelieve in might makes right. Don’t give it consent. Recognize the beastly dimension for what it is and recognize that to affirm that beastly element, to give it a blank check, places people in great spiritual jeopardy.
I don’t think the message means to assume the worst about every element of one’s country. But it is a call to discernment. Twenty-first century democratic America is not totalitarian; but it does all too often cross the line into being beastly in all too many ways. The challenge to followers of the Lamb, I think, is consistently (and constantly) to keep his way in mind when we are challenged with where we will place our loyalty. We can appreciate the non-beastly things, but we must not let them lead us to become too comfortable and complacent with beastly elements.
Break the cycle of violence
A second clue is to note how the myth of redemptive violence fuels an on-going spiral of perceived wrong-doing followed by retaliation followed by more retaliation followed by more retaliation followed by…you get the point. When those who resist the wrong-doing take up the sword, John points out here, only the sword wins.
So this is his message: Refuse the sword. Break the cycle of violence. “Let anyone who has an ear listen: If you are to be taken captive, to captivity you go; if you kill with the sword, with the sword you must be killed. Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints” (13:10).
That is, recognize that retaliation feeds the beast—so break the spiral. You don’t resist the Beast in its deepest reality with violence. That leads to a victory for the Beast, even if it may lead to the overthrow of a particular earthly king. Again, to evoke World War II. The long-term effect of that war shows that while the specific Nazi and nationalist Japanese sword-bearers were indeed defeated, the sword itself ultimately won that war, not genuine peace.
Follow the Lamb
And the third clue—first we recognize the beast as beast and refuse to give it our consent and, second, we turn from the cycle of retaliatory violence—the third element is to band together to sing, to band together to follow the Lamb.
The 144,000 (that is, the countless multitude) stand with the Lamb, they make a sound like the sound of many waters, like the sound of harpists playing on their harps, and they learn a new song. They are “redeemed from the earth” to celebrate. Or, we could say, they are freed from the domination of the Beast in order to embrace life. And this happens during the 42 months, this happens right now. Every time we celebrate life and healing and resistance and genuine peace, we join in this “new song.”
Let me conclude with a story of “standing.” Kathleen and I just finished rereading the wonderful Harry Potter books. I believe these books tell an amazing story of creative nonviolence and the power of self-giving love that gains victory in the battle against the myth of redemptive violence and empire.
The hero, Harry, throughout his first six years at Hogwarts School and in the following year of going underground with his friends Hermione and Ron, resists the evil Lord Voldemort and many other authority figures who refused to support his resistance. And he suffers quite a bit, sometimes feeling quite isolated. But he never really wavers. One of his friends, Neville, does always support Harry but through most of the story Neville is pretty inept and lacks all self-confidence. But he does grow.
When Harry goes underground and Voldemort takes over control of the school, Neville leads the resistance—with great effectiveness. Harry returns for a final confrontation, not knowing much of what Neville has been doing. When they meet, Neville is beaten, bloody, but absolutely unbowed. Harry is stunned, and impressed, to learn all that Neville and his allies have been doing as they stood up to the oppressive teachers Voldemort had installed. As Neville tells of the resistance and suffering, Harry’s partner Ron says, “Blimey, Neville, haven’t you taken too many chances.” No, Neville says. “The thing is, it helps when people stand up to them, it gives everyone hope. I used to notice that when you did it, Harry.” Stand up to the Beast—in all its forms. That gives everyone hope. Amen.
So John wrote to warn Jesus-followers who were tempted to believe the Roman claim that the Empire was the source of life and security. He communicated this warning through the ghastly image of the beast, source of death and insecurity.
As for us, living in an Empire whose core operational mechanism is the U.S.A., the warning is to be on the look-out for “beastly elements” and “beastly dimensions” within our otherwise democratic nation.
Okay, sounds like nothing to be too concerned about. Guess I’d better decide who is better suited to lead the Empire, Obama or Romney.
One question: If the U.S.A. ever moves from having “beastly elements” and “beastly dimensions,” to being the source of death and insecurity, who is likely to be among the first to recognize this terrible reality? Those of us living in places like Lancaster or Harrisonburg? People living in Hondorus or Columbia? Gaza or the West Bank? Northwest Pakistan or Afghanistan? Libya or Syria? Yemen?
Who can we count on to sound the alarm soon enough to save us?
I appreciate your thoughts, Berry.
But to the extent your sarcasm is aimed at my sermon, I think it is misplaced. I don’t say we live in an “otherwise democratic nation.” I say our nation, Beastly as it is in its imperial and militaristic dynamics, does nonetheless have some elements people of peace should value. I can’t imagine you’d disagree with that. Just the fact that your Mennonite forebears found a safe haven here and that you can voice your sharp critiques of our country without fear of reprisal seems significantly non-Beastly.
And I certainly do not even hint that it “sounds like nothing to be too concerned about”! The whole thrust of these sermons is to tap into Revelation’s urgency that is focused precisely on the tendency in John’s churches to think there is “nothing to be too concerned about.” But the “concern” may lose some of its value if we don’t take the opportunities still left to us in this country to exercise the freedoms we have to dissent and gather in countercultural communities and create alternatives.
Of course the USA is in so many ways “the source of death and insecurity” and has been for a long time. But what should we do about it? I’m with the Indian prophet Arundati Roy in believing that working within the American civil society to challenge the Empire story is one of the most likely ways toward turning things around. I happen to think that voting against Romney in the most effective way possible (for a third party candidate in a non-contested state; for Obama in a contested state) is one (very) small way to help buy some time for civil society to grow in resistance.
Ted, you did refer to “twenty-first century democratic America”.
But more to my point, are you suggesting the Roman Empire included no “elements people of peace should value”? That none in John’s contemporary audience had not been deeply blessed by Roman security? That the elite citizens of Philippi, Corinth and other imperial cities had no opportunity to dissent? And yet John characterized the entire Empire as a beast.
How could he do that? Well, let’s imagine we are Muslim dissenters living within the U.S., That will help us understand. The fabled American respect for the rule of law doesn’t exist for them.
Bottom line, if we find John’s metaphor of the beast to be applicable to the current global configuration of U.S.-led power, then we have no choice but to step back from the quadrennial loyalty-building exercise related to the election of a President and find another way to be politically relevant.