[This is the twelfth 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—January 20, 2013—Revelation 15:1–16:21
We seem to get mixed messages about love. Jesus was asked to identify the greatest commandment—it’s the call to love, he said. Probably if we were asked what was the most important emphasis for Martin Luther King, we’d say it was love. He called one of his most famous books, Strength to Love.
And yet it also seems that love is kind of looked down upon. It certainly doesn’t seem to come up much when we talk about social policy and social problems, gun violence, economic inequality, terrorism, climate change. When we talk about social issues we tend to use “realistic” language—power, coercion, justifiable violence, finding a seat at the table, self-interest, just desserts.
Love may seem sentimental, naïve, emotional, soft. Nice for life on a personal level (perhaps), but not very central to negotiating social life, not very central to the work of social justice and social order.
I’ve read a couple of books that bear this out. Michael Burleigh in his book on World War II, Moral Combat, and Jean Bethke Elshtein in her book on the American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Just War Against Terror, both write about values and moral standards—but neither devote any space to talk about love. In the “real world,” love is irrelevant it would seem. But is it? Have the violent strategies with which the “realists” deal with conflict and wrongdoing actually worked to enhance human life?
I think this is a challenging question—given all the terrible things that go on in our world. I wonder if the book of Revelation gives us any insights about love and social life? What would you guess I think? Let me read a portion of Revelation—a passage that may not seem to say much about love—chapters 15 and 16, and then you can see what I will pull out of the hat.
I’d like you to listen and only think about your general impressions of these verses—not so much directly about my questions. We’ll talk about how this passage feels a little bit after I read before I go on to explain it. What word or two do these visions evoke for you?
I saw an amazing portent in heaven: seven angels with seven plagues. With them the wrath of God ends. I saw a sea of glass mixed with fire. Those who conquered the beast and its image and the number of its name stand beside the sea with harps of God in their hands. They sing the song of Moses, the servantof God, and the song of the Lamb: “Great and amazing are your deeds, Lord God the Almighty! Just and true are your ways, King of the nations. Who will not fear and glorify your name? You alone are holy. All nations come and worship before you, for your judgments have been revealed.”
Then I looked; the temple of the tentof witness in heaven was opened. Out came seven angels with seven plagues, robed in pure bright linen.One of the four living creatures gave the seven angels golden bowls full of the wrath of God; and the temple was filled with smoke from the glory. No one could enter the temple until the plagues were ended.
Then I heard a loud voice from the temple tell the angels, “Go, pour out on the earth the bowls of the wrath of God.” The first angel poured his bowl on the earth, and a painful sore came on those who had the mark of the beast and who worshiped its image. The second angel poured his bowl into the sea. It became like the blood of a corpse and every living thing in the sea died. The third angel poured his bowl into the rivers and the springs of water, and they became blood. I heard the angel of the waters say, “You are just, O Holy One; you have judged these things; because they shed the blood of saints and prophets, you have given them blood to drink. It is what they deserve!” And I heard the altar respond, “Yes, O Lord God, the Almighty, your judgments are true and just!”
The fourth angel poured his bowl on the sun. It was allowed to scorch people with fire; still they cursed God, who had authority over the plagues. They did not repent and give God glory. The fifth angel poured his bowl on the throne of the beast, and its kingdom was plunged into darkness; people gnawed their tongues in agony, cursed God due to their pains and sores, and did not repent of their deeds. The sixth angel poured his bowl on the river Euphrates. Its water was dried up to prepare the way for kings from the east. I saw three foul spirits like frogs come from the mouth of the dragon, mouth of the beast, and the mouth of the false prophet. These demonic spirits perform signs, and go out to the kings of the earth, to assemble them for battle on the great day of God. And they assembled them at the place called Harmagedon.
The seventh angel poured his bowl into the air. A loud voice came from the temple, from the throne, saying, “It is done!” There came flashes of lightning, peals of thunder, and a terrible, violent earthquake. The great city was split into three parts, and the cities of the nations fell. God remembered great Babylon and gave her the wine-cup of the fury of God’s wrath.Every island fled away, no mountains were to be found;and huge hailstones dropped from heaven on people until they cursed God for the plague of the hail, so fearful was that plague.
What words came to mind as you heard this?
At the very beginning of World War II, British poet W. H. Auden wrote what became a famous poem called “September 1, 1939”—the day Germany invaded Poland and Britain and France declared war on Germany. Auden realized this was a world changing moment. He laments: “I and the public know, what all schoolchildren learn, those to whom evil is done, do evil in return.” He struggles with the outworking of this spiral of evil, then concludes with the poem’s most famous line: “We must love one another or die.”
Now, as it turned out, Auden repudiated this poem and especially this line. He rarely allowed the poem to be reprinted and when he did once, he left that line out. I suppose he thought that it showed him to be too sentimental and weak. After all, what was necessary to stop the Nazis was brute force, not love. But still, did the Nazi spirit truly lose that war? Was Auden’s plea for love refuted? I tend to think not.
In fact, were we to summarize the life work of Martin Luther King in just a few words, this phrase, “we must love one another or die” would work pretty well. But we live in a world not all that friendly to love, it would seem—look at what happened to King himself, shot to death at the age of 39.
The “real world”
I think this passage from Revelation 15–16 actually can be helpful for us as we think about love and the “real world.” What we have here is the third of three terribly destructive sets of seven plagues. Each set gets worse—first, we read of terrible destruction that brings death to one-quarter of the earth; then, the destruction comes to one-third of the earth. And now, here, in chapter 16, “every living thing in the sea died.”
What’s going on with these visions? Well, they are not meant to be read with precise literalism. We have these visions of death and right afterward the story goes on with people and things still living. The tales of destruction should be read symbolically. They symbolize—not particular moments of extraordinary, even unbelievable death and destruction—but the on-going reality of human life.
The numbers, one-quarter, one-third, total, do not tell how many are going to be destroyed. Rather, they simply convey terrible destruction. People die in wars and famine, empires and nation-states wreak havoc, the earth itself is exploited and polluted and poisoned. Such destructiveness ebbs and flows throughout human history. But the brokenness, the alienation, the attempts at domination and control, the conflicts, the corruptions, wars rumors of war, all stretch back over most of the past 2,000 years.
So, John simply reports on human experience in history, not on some future apocalyptic moment or moments. John does not predict a future spiral of three sets of plagues in three moments in time that just get worse and worse. Rather, the movement from one-quarter to complete is rhetorical. It’s a way to make a point about how serious John wants his readers take these problems that plague humanity. He increases the stakes each time in order to grab his readers’ attention.
Why John writes
Let’s remember why John writes. He wants his readers, the seven congregations addressed in chapters two and three, to be aware of what kind of world they live in—and what kind of response God wants from them. Many of John’s readers are comfortable and relatively secure. They find ways to prosper, in their world. But to do so, they must embrace the spirituality of empire and give loyalty to Caesar.
John thinks this embrace is tragic. Few of his readers perceive the oppression and destructiveness of the Roman Empire. They themselves do fine; they don’t notice the backs upon which the empire is built and rests—the slaves, the oppressed and exploited, the empire’s enemies, souls that the empire destroys for its own gain.
And even worse, they fail to be agents of healing and compassion. They fail to live as heirs of Abraham and Sarah, who were called by God to parent a people who would bless all the families of earth. They fail to live as heirs of Moses, who God called to lead slaves into freedom. They failed to live as heirs of Jesus, the prince of peace. John shares these visions of the terrible reality of actual life in the world (exaggerated, to be sure) in order to challenge his readers to respond to their calling: no to empire, yes to transformative compassion.
God’s healing agenda
Our keys to understanding what is going in with these bowl plagues come at the very beginning and in the third bowl plague.
First, we must notice the opening picture to these visions—the people of God, those who have conquered the beast, stand by the sea. Revelation tells us earlier how they conquer: “By the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony [when] they did not cling to life even in the face of death” (12:11). Remember the key image back in chapter five of the Lamb, “standing as if slain.” These who stand next to the sea here sing the song of Moses and the Lamb. The song praises the justice and truth of God that results in this: “All nations will come and worship before you” (15:4). In whatever follows, the purposes of God are this worship—joy, healing, solidarity, celebration.
Of course, what follows with the plagues hardly seems joyful and celebrative. But we should read what follows carefully and not jump too quickly to conclusions. What’s going on is the working out of God’s “wrath.” I have talked about this notion of “wrath” before—the idea of “wrath” in Revelation is that God’s providential care allows for consequences and the outworking of human freedom, even when that freedom finds expression in hurtful ways. God’s wrath is not the direct finger of God. In fact, the powers of evil (the dragon, beast, false prophet) are the ones directly responsible for the plagues. But they do not thwart God’s purposes in the long run.
“Drinking the saints blood”
The method of the working out of God’s purpose is persevering love. We see this in the third plague in chapter 16: “The third angel poured his bowl into the rivers and the springs of water, and they became blood. I heard the angel of the waters say, ‘You are just, O Holy One; you have judged these things; because they shed the blood of saints and prophets, you have given them blood to drink. It is what they deserve!’ And I heard the altar respond, ‘Yes, O Lord God, the Almighty, your judgments are true and just!’”
There is something here that may seem pretty surprising, though not if we, as I talked about in my last sermon, know how to read Revelation. Notice what happens to the ones who “shed the blood of saints and prophets.” What should happen to them? You would expect that their own blood would be shed—they killed by the sword, it would seem “just” for them to die by the sword.
But that is not what happens. Instead, “they are given [the] blood [of the saints and prophets] to drink.” What a strange punishment! But let’s remember how the metaphor of “blood” works in Revelation. All the people in our day who dismiss Revelation as bloody and violent and vengeful and hateful and retributive, its “cultured despisers,” have never noticed the way “blood” actually is used in the book.
The only blood that is ever shed in Revelation is the blood the Lamb sheds or the blood his followers shed. Blood is not an image used of punishment. Blood is an image used of persevering love. Blood is not an image used of God’s retaliation. Blood is an image used of the non-retaliation of the Lamb and his followers.
I quote from my last sermon: This is what “blood” signifies: Jesus’ life, and other lives lived in solidarity with his. It’s the willingness to stand against violence and oppression and for compassion and shalom. Such an approach to life leads to some kind of cross, some kind of resistance from the powers-that-be, some kind of self-sacrifice or, in Gandhi’s term, some kind of self-suffering. And, this self-giving love actually is the very force that takes down the Powers and brings in the New Jerusalem.
So, in the third bowl plague, saints and prophets are those who witness to life like Jesus did. They suffer consequences. They have their blood shed—the very blood that the Powers “drink.” And it defeats the powers. The prophets and saints conquer by the blood of the Lamb and the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death.
We will learn more in Revelation 17 and 18 about what happens when “they” drink the blood of the saints and prophets. For now though, the key point is simply to remember that 15:4 tells us that God’s purpose is the healing and worship of the nations. Knowing this purpose should govern our reading of everything in Revelation (and in the whole Bible and in every other expression of Christian theology).
Strength to love
So, back to Martin Luther King and love.
The picture we get in Revelation of the domination system, these plagues and most obviously the massive, oppressive corruption in chapter 13, really has nothing on the American South of the 1950s. In my reading of Taylor Branch’s three terrific books on King’s life and work I was impressed, as much as anything, with just how oppressive and violent that world was, way worse that I had imagined. This was the “real world” at its worse. It was a situation of unbearable systemic violence and oppression that crushed the human spirit. The Jim Crow system had to go down—but how could that happen without a terrible bloodbath.
One point Revelation makes is that resistance by the sword only furthers the power of domination. Almost always, the powers that be benefit from violence. I read recently a terrible story about the resistance in Czechoslovakia during World War II. Some in the movement wanted to assassinate the leader of the Nazi occupation. But those who were in Czechoslovakia actually argued against it. They said it would be counter-productive and only strengthen the oppressors. But some assassins backed by the British government entered the country and did kill the German leader. And the consequences were disastrous. The Nazis killed thousands of Czechs in retaliation. The resistance movement that had been doing a lot of good was smashed. The heightened spiral of violence strengthened the oppressors and crushed the resisters.
In Revelation, in fascinating imagery, the powers of evil (the dragon, the beast, the false prophet) through the use of “foul spirits like frogs…go abroad to the kings of the whole world, to assemble them for battle” against God (16:14)—the battle of Armageddon. The powers want a war. They know that this will serve their purposes and make it certain that the kings stay on their side and do not defect to God.
This is the brilliant insight W. H. Auden had in 1939—even if he could not retain the courage of his convictions. We must love one another or die, because the power of hatred and violence can only destroy. The dragon rejoices at any big war, not matter how “just” it is claimed to be, because the winner in all wars is the way of death.
Martin Luther King learned this lesson from Gandhi and from his own experience. The only way the true enemy—the powers of injustice, racism, domination—the only way this enemy could truly be overcome was through love. The path of love in face of hatred is costly, but still the only path that will bring healing. King knew that the white racists in the South and the people they hurt were in a crisis that could only be resolved together, a crisis that could only be resolved with a method of conquering that allowed the enemy to win too.
And it’s an amazing story. To realize just how entrenched and violent the regime of segregation was, is to realize how incredibly courageous and effective King and his colleagues were. They insisted on a path of nonviolent resistance—a path they could follow only in the strength of love.
This path of nonviolent resistance that opens the possibility of victory for both sides is precisely what Revelation will go on to tell about. In chapter 19, the battle of Armageddon actually does happen—but it’s not actually a battle. The only blood shed in that vision will be from Jesus. He wins not by shedding his enemies blood but by, in effect, making them drink his. And the consequence, we will see, is that the kings of the earth win too. They are not destroyed but healed.
Martin Luther King, like Jesus, “won” not by greater firepower but by persevering love that allowed for conversion even while making ongoing violent domination impossible.
Of course, King’s victory was only partial. Way too many problems remain. What might Revelation have to say about this partialness. Well, one way to read Revelation is as a promise for full victory in the end. The partial victories are foretastes of the great, complete victory to come. I’m not quite sure what I think of this promise. I’ll talk about that more in sermons to come. So please come back.
But I will say this with confidence. I believe that even if we should read Revelation as a bit ambiguous about where everything will all end up even if we shouldn’t be too confident about a happy ending, still we should see that Revelation tells us clearly and passionately about the one and only path that will lead to a happy ending if we are to have one. To find healing from the destructive plagues, if the nations are truly to be healed, it will only come by following the path of the Lamb. Martin Luther King got that exactly right.