[This is the fifteenth 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—May 12, 2013—Revelation 19:1-21
One of the great things for me in looking closely at the book of Revelation again is that I keep noticing new things. I have talked quite a bit, and will some more today, about how I see “blood” everywhere in Revelation. Now, this is not unusual, a lot of people see red when they look at Revelation. However, I have noticed that the “blood” in Revelation is always the blood of Jesus or his followers; never do we hear of the blood of Jesus’s enemies being shed. This one-sided use of blood can’t be an accident.
I believe when we “follow the blood” in Revelation we see that one of the main messages of the book is a call to self-giving love. Jesus gave his life over to love, so should we. Revelation presents Jesus’ way of nonviolent resistance to the domination system as the model for his people—and as the method that overcomes that death-dealing system. Jesus’ “blood,” and that of his followers, stand for lives of compassion in resistance to domination.
The Powers keep coming back
Today I want to talk about something else I have noticed. Over and over again we are told that the beast, the dragon, the city Babylon, these powers that symbolize the domination system—over and over we are told that they are defeated, that they go down, that “it is all over.” Yet the powers keep coming back, they keep showing up.
Some of you may remember the old folk song, “The Cat Came Back.” It has also been turned into a children’s book—I remember reading it over and over to our son Johan when he was little. Mr. Johnson wants to get rid of this pesky old cat—“he gave it to a little man who was going far away, but the cat came back the very next day.” And it goes on, a little boy takes the cat on a boat trip. The boat capsizes; lives were lost. But still the cat came back. Even after the hydrogen bomb falls, the cat comes back. “They thought he was gone, but the cat came back, he just wouldn’t stay away.”
This is kind of like the dragon and his minions in Revelation. They go down in chapters 11 and 12, “it is over.” They go down in chapter 17. And then again in chapter 18. And at the beginning of chapter 19, the great harlot has been judged and smoke goes up from her forever and ever. And yet, in the second half of the chapter the powers of evil are back, gathered for the great battle of Armageddon.
The great and victorious warrior
There’s a war going on in Revelation—a war against these Powers. But it’s a strange kind of war. Listen while I read Revelation 19. There’s a great and victorious warrior pictured in the second part of the chapter. What do you notice about him? There’s a great and victorious warrior here—what do you notice about him?
I heard the loud voice of a great multitude in heaven, saying, “Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power to our God whose judgments are true and just; God has judged the great harlot who corrupted the earth and has avenged on her the blood of God’s servants.”Once more they said, “Hallelujah! The smoke goes up from her forever and ever.” And the twenty-four elders and the four living creatures fell down and worshiped God who is seated on the throne, saying, “Amen. Hallelujah!”
And from the throne came a voice saying, “Praise our God, all you servants who fear God, small and great.” Then I heard a voice like the sound of many waters and of mighty thunderpeals. It cried out, “Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and exult and give God the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come. The Lamb’s bride has made herself ready; clothed with fine linen, bright and pure”—for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints. And the angel saidto me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” And he said to me, “These are true words of God.” The testimony of Jesusis the spirit of prophecy.”
Then I saw heaven opened. There was a white horse, its rider called Faithful and True. In justice he judges and makes war. His eyes are like a flame. He wears many crowns and is clothed in a robe dipped inblood. His name is the Word of God. The armies of heaven, wearing fine linen, white and pure, follow him on white horses. From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. He will rulethem with a rod of iron and will tread the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. On his robe is inscribed, “King of kings and Lord of lords.”
Then I saw an angel standing in the sun. With a loud voice he called to the birds that fly in midheaven, “Come, gather for the great supper of God, to eat the flesh of kings, of captains, of the mighty, of horses and their riders—flesh of all, both free and slave, both small and great.” Then I saw the beast and the kings of the earth with their armies gathered to make war against the rider on the horse and against his army. The beast simply was captured, with the false prophet who had performed the signs that deceived those who had received the mark of the beast and those who worshiped its image. The beast and false prophet were thrown into the lake of fire that burns with sulfur. The rest were killed by the sword of the rider on the horse, the sword that came from his mouth; and all the birds were gorged with their flesh. (Revelation 19:1-21)
So, what came to mind as you listened? What do you notice about the warrior?
The warrior is victorious but the Powers keep coming back. That they always come back is a literary technique pushing the narrative ahead. We come to the end but know there is still more of the book to come. Then we circle back and it happens again. It’s a way to hold readers’ interest. But I also think there is a theological message here too—it’s a way of saying that history, what Revelation symbolizes as the 3 ½ years, the time we live in, is not simply linear. The outcome that matters isn’t only in the future.
That is, that the Powers keep coming back and that the Lamb’s followers keep celebrating tell us that what matters is what we do now. Revelation is not about the future. It’s about the present—the present of John the writer but also the present of all the readers throughout history. The Powers are always present, but so too is the celebration, if we choose to join it—as John Lennon sang, “war is over, if you want it.”
The war that is not a war
I’m calling this sermon, “The War That’s Not a War.” As I thought about this title, I came to a sense that this actually is a good title for Revelation as a whole: The War That’s Not a War. Why so? Well, Revelation tells us about an on-going conflict, a conflict that is deadly and that requires, in the words of Alastor “Mad-Eye” Moody, “constant vigilance.” Revelation frames the conflict in terms of living a life-enhancing life in the midst of the death-dealing ways of the Roman Empire.
And, yet Revelation makes it clear that this war is not to be fought with conventional weapons. It’s not to be a typical war with winners and losers, with death and destruction. The “conquering” that needs to happen comes about through love, not through force. So, it’s not really a war. There is a war, but it’s not really a war.
Revelation 19 gives this kind of picture. Back in chapter 16, at the conclusion of the series of visions where the bowls of God’s wrath are poured out, we are told that the beast and false prophet will gather “the kings of the whole world, to assemble them for battle on the great day of God the Almighty…at the place…called Armageddon” (16:14,16).
But then come two chapters’ worth of visions of the destruction of the city of Babylon, the Great Harlot—the home for the kings of the earth, the social manifestation of the influence of the beast. There is no battle here. This great city commits a kind of suicide as its own death-dealing dynamics turn on the city itself and bring it down. Then there is a celebration, the city is gone, the marriage of the Lamb and the Lamb’s followers is at hand.
But the story does not forget the promised battle. At 19:11, a great warrior rides forth on a mighty white horse joined by “the armies of heaven.” So, it is Armageddon time after all. But read carefully here. We must not forget the operating dynamic of the book as a whole. Remember, the Lamb who gave his life to love and nonviolent resistance to the Powers. He has been vindicated by God and expresses the ultimate power of the universe.
Keep the vision of the victorious Lamb from chapter 5 in mind. Then, we won’t have much trouble seeing that in fact what happens when the rider on the white horse comes is a creative way to portray a war that is not a war. There is, in the end, no battle.
Still, it is not accidental that the Rider is portrayed with battle-like imagery. In fact, he is said to “make war.” He rides a great white horse. He wields a powerful sword—think Aragorn in The Return of the King, bearing the reforged “sword that was broken” into battle. The Rider is joined by massive armies from heaven.
As I said, Revelation insists that we are in a terrible conflict—time during the 3 ½ years requires “life and death ethics.” “Life and death ethics” is the term philosopher Philip Hallie uses of the people of LeChambon. This French village saved the lives of over 5,000 Jewish refugees during World War II. In his book Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed. Hallie means by “life and death ethics” a fundamental commitment that all human life is precious beyond measure. Because life is precious, we avoid harming others—but, even more, we act to prevent harm.
The story Hallie tells certainly takes place in an emergency situation. I think Revelation means to tell its readers that this entire 3 ½ years is an emergency situation. Life and death ethics always apply because harm doing always lurks around us.
A battle without blood
But let’s look more closely at the imagery in chapter 19. In waging war the Lamb actually does not wage war. There is only one mention of “blood” in this entire scene. And it is consistent with the way the rest of Revelation portrays “blood.” Shockingly, whatever battle there is, it is one without any combatant’s blood being shed. The blood here belongs to the Rider himself—and it is shed before he rides forth.
The Rider “is clothed in a robe dipped in blood” (19:13). The Rider is Jesus. As chapter one tells us, he is “Faithful and True,” with eyes like a flame of fire, with a sword that comes out of his mouth. He is the Lamb that was slain and raised from chapter 5. This blood on his garment is “blood” as self-giving love as nonviolent resistance to the domination ways of the empire.
These armies of heaven that join the Rider—none of them carry weapons. They “wear fine linen, white and pure” (19:14). The Rider is the Lamb; the “armies” are the Lamb’s followers. They are chapter 7’s multitudes who are given white robes—those who follow the Lamb wherever he goes. They “conquer the [dragon] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, [they] do not cling to life even in face of death.” These soldiers do not shed others’ blood, they do not inflict suffering on others—even on the sold-out-to-evil kings of the earth. They wage “war” with self-giving love—they fight without fighting in a war that is not a war.
So we have one bit of blood. It symbolizes Jesus’ love that led to his death and vindication by God. And we have one weapon—the sword from the Rider’s mouth. This sword is Jesus’ teaching, his word of testimony, his challenge to the ways of domination, his call to love neighbor (and to understand even the enemy as neighbor).
What a strange Armageddon this is! What happens? No bloodshed. No battle. The Powers of evil, the beast and false prophet, are simply captured. A war that’s not a war. The issue is not their irresistible power. The beast and false prophet are powerless when people don’t believe in them. The problem is, though, that we do keep believing in them and we give them power: we believe in the necessity of violence to stop evil; we believe in the need to defer to people in power; we believe in doctrinal or behavioral boundary lines that separate “true believers” from the others; we believe in my country right or wrong.
This is why Revelation emphasizes that the weapon that conquers the Powers is Jesus’ word of testimony. Jesus testifies: the way to salvation is to love your neighbor and forgive seventy times seven, the Sabbath is for humankind not humankind for the Sabbath, let the one without sin cast the first stone, the rulers of the nations lord it over others and it must not be so among you, the greatest among you shall be the servant of all, blessed are the peacemakers. And so on.
In following these words, the “armies of heaven,” that is, you and me, all who seek to follow the way of the Lamb, in following these words we are empowered to conquer. We return to the core message of Jesus. When there are questions or doubts, go back to the path of love. Then the beast can’t conquer you. Then the beast won’t have power over you. Then you won’t believe in the beast’s ways.
In Revelation 19, the beast and false prophet are simply captured and thrown into the lake of fire. This image describes their destruction. “Beast” and “false prophet” in Revelation are symbols; they are personifications; they are not persons. These are the systems of prejudice, the structures of injustice—human culture insofar as it dehumanizes, belief systems that diminish outsiders’ humanity, the dynamics of racism and patriarchy and homophobia that socialize us to fear and lead us to marginalize and scapegoat. The image of the beast and false prophet going into the lake of fire is not about revenge against human beings, it’s about destroying the destroyers of the earth for the sake of all humanity.
A gruesome picture of healing
Still, if we expect to find revenge and punishment of human beings in Revelation, we might find some at the end of chapter 19. Because, after the beast and false prophet go into the lake of fire, we do read of something happening to their human allies—“the rest [meaning the kings of the earth and their armies] were killed by the sword of the rider of the horse, the sword that came from his mouth; and all the birds were gorged with their flesh” (19:21). Sounds pretty harsh.
Let’s read this vision in context, though. The Rider is Jesus, whose blood brought victory through persevering love. The blood of Jesus’ opponents is never shed in all of Revelation. The sword that “kills” here is the “sword from his mouth”—not words of condemnation but words of welcome and healing. That these are words of healing is confirmed by what comes later in Revelation—the kings of the earth, these very minions of the beast who go to Armageddon and expect to fight against Jesus, the kings of the earth end up in the New Jerusalem. They eat healing fruit from the tree of life.
So, what we have here in Revelation 19 is a gruesome picture of healing, not a picture of punishment. What we have is life-transforming mercy. This mercy turns the world of the kings of the earth upside down. They are freed from the Powers and everything changes. Then they see the Lamb for who he is. We have a fascinating precedent earlier in the New Testament.
The Apostle Paul, in his pre-Christian days as a zealous fighter for truth (as he understood it) literally had wielded the sword of punishment. He shed the blood of Jesus’ followers. He sold out to the politics of purity and fought against followers of the Lamb. But then he met Jesus on the Damascus Road and had his world turned upside down. The violence of love.
Paul was blinded and rendered speechless. It took him months, maybe years, to piece things back together. His healing required a kind of being killed, a kind of being devoured by the birds of heaven. And then he himself became a bearer of the gospel of mercy and did as much as he could to tear down the very walls that had led him to violence. So, seeing these images in chapter 19 in light of Paul makes it believable that the kings of the earth are being radically transformed by the Lamb’s witness.
Living in an “emergency situation”
To conclude, I want to return to the sense of living in an “emergency situation.” You don’t have to believe in the rapture to think we are living in times of crisis today. I’ve been reading a fascinating book just lately. It’s by a Eugene, Oregon, anarchist named John Zerzan and called Elements of Refusal. Zerzan offers a radical and persuasive critique of modern civilization. His Babylon-going-down motif in relation to 21st century America is perceptive. His is indeed an insightful “apocalyptic” vision. We are doing ourselves in, that which seems solid melts into air as I speak.
Perceptive as Zerzan’s critique may be, though, it is not “biblical apocalyptic.” It has only some things in common with Revelation—important things to be sure, but not the whole picture. Along with Revelation’s critique of civilization (just as radical and thoroughgoing as Zerzan’s anarchist critique), it adds another dimension that I find missing in Zerzan’s book.
Throughout Revelation, more important than the critique, we read of worship. Praises are sung, human solidarity leads to celebration even in face of civilization’s destructiveness. Revelation’s apocalyptic sensibility actually is hopeful and joyful. Now, we should notice that Revelation’s worship is not mainly about going to church (though what we do here certainly can and should support the deeper, more profound worship Revelation has in mind).
Worship in Revelation celebrates life in the here and now. Revelation does not point to the future saying hold on. Revelation does not say, in your present of life as nasty, brutish, and short the sweet bye-and-bye is where the action will be. No. Revelation insists, sing, celebrate, live joyfully right now. The way of the Lamb is the way of life—you may suffer grievously as you embody it, but you will also know joy, you will also know life.
I have been helped to think about the message of Revelation as I try to see life in light of my grandchildren, Eli and LouLou, now ages six and three. Now I do care a lot, and feel terrified at times, thinking of how life will be for them in the decades to come—global warming, expanding drone warfare, unrelenting corporate domination, cold-heartedness toward vulnerable people, austerity, dead oceans. So I do feel a sense of urgency to try to create a better future. Revelation reminds me that for there to be a usable future, we must work as hard as we can to build and sustain the paths of mercy.
But even more, I think about loving Eli and LouLou now. I can learn about love from them. Kids are pretty good at living in the present. They remind us that there is always value in celebration, there is always value in hugging, there is always value in laughing. The best preparation for the future is to learn to love in the present. Human beings are pretty resilient when we find ways to live in love. So, let’s go for it.