Revelation sermon #04 (6/22/08)

How Does God Win?—Ted Grimsrud
Shalom Mennonite Congregation—Harrisonburg, VA
Isaiah 42:1-7; Mark 10:13-16; Revelation 5:1-10

What kind of world do we want? What kind of world do we imagine? What inspires us to imagine such a world? How do we make our imaginings real? I have to say that now I’m a grandparent, I am driven to imagine a peaceable world.

One of the best ways to read the Bible, I think, is as a prod to our imaginations. Stories from start to finish can inspire us (and some, of course, also depress us!). But I’m thinking of the brothers Jacob and Esau—rivals, alienated for years. And then reconciled. I’m thinking of the prophet Amos, relying only on his passion for justice, and his compassion for those pushed under the “wheels of progress”—proclaiming explosive words of accountability.

I’m thinking of teen-age Mary, having her world shattered by the vocation given her by the angel Gabriel—and responding with words of fierce joy: “God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:52-53).

Then we get to the Book of Revelation. Definitely a book to prod the imagination. But in what direction? Peaceable—or destructive? Serving what purpose? Mercy—or condemnation?

I want to suggest that Revelation tells the same kind of story as the prophets and, especially, as Jesus. For those with ears to hear, this Revelation of Jesus Christ prods the imagination toward compassion. It gives us hope that even God’s enemies will find healing when all is said and done.

So, according to Revelation, How does God win? How does God win? How does God get to where God wants to go in this Bible-long story?

I just read a pretty amazing book that raises this how question in profoundly unsettling ways. The book is called Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization by Nicholson Baker.

The ambiguity of this term “End” in the subtitle gets at Baker’s agenda. Is it “end of civilization” as in purpose? And what is civilization’s purpose? Is the “purpose” of civilization to achieve the ability to wage total war? Is it to devote extraordinary creativity and sophistication to warmaking, fueled by the brightest minds and all available material resources? Just think where our nation’s best resources go.

Baker tells of James Conant. In peacetime , Conant served as the very effective president of Harvard University—and in wartime was in charge of the U.S. government’s committee that, in Baker’s words, “was interested in perfecting new ways to stun, frighten, blind, sicken, or kill people—chemical weapons, germ weapons, and new kinds of incendiary weapons” (286).

Of course, when the purpose of civilization becomes the perfecting of the means to destroy, the end of civilization in the other sense—its demise—cannot be far behind. This, at least, is Baker’s argument.

I expect to return to this book, Human Smoke, in future sermons. I think Baker’s portrayal of the rule of chaos, the immense violence, the extraordinary destruction of World War II may illumine Revelation’s visions of plagues and destruction. For today, though, I want to focus on an underlying question. How does God win? How must evil be opposed in order for things to turn out right? How should we, as believers in God, seek to win?

I actually think the Bible as a whole, and Revelation more particularly, give us genuine clarity on these questions. However, Christians sadly and tragically have had a hard time recognizing this clarity. I see chapter five of Revelation as the key chapter in the entire book. Before looking at that passage, though, I would like to read two other texts. These help set the stage for what happens in Revelation.

First, these words from the book of Isaiah. Words that spoke, when first uttered, to ancient Israel in exile. The nation had followed the path of power politics, had embraced the myth of redemptive violence like the surrounding nations, the nation had lived by the sword and ultimately perished by the sword. However, even after this, the people of the promise, though shattered, found sustenance and maintained a sense of identity as God’s people.

This prophecy from Isaiah 42:1-7 played a crucial role. It emphasized the path of healing creation that God has embarked on—a task God’s people are called to share. This path leads to victory through suffering love, not victory through irresistible force.

“Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he brings forth justice to the nations. He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching. Thus says God, the Lord, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it; I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people; a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in the darkness.” (Isaiah 42:1-7)

Many Christians have reduced this prophecy to a literal prediction about Jesus. Read more carefully, it seems clear that what is mind here is the community of God’s people. These descendants of Abraham, according to Genesis 12, are meant to bless all the families of the earth. Now, Jesus did indeed embody what God’s people as a whole have been called to practice. The key point, though, is that as the embodiment of the Servant of God, Jesus does not “take our place” as our “substitute” and relieve us of this calling. To the contrary, the New Testament from Matthew to Revelation makes clear, the way of Jesus is the way his followers must share—following the Lamb wherever he goes.

So, when we get to the Gospels, we read over and over how Jesus lived in light of Isaiah’s vision—and called others to do likewise. Mark 10:13-16 is one place we see this:

“People brought little children to Jesus in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, ‘Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’ And he took the children up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them. (Mark 10:13-16)

One of the key characteristics of children that Jesus has in mind here is their vulnerability. Children have an apparent powerlessness that requires them to trust in others for their care and sustenance. They “win” through vulnerable love—that is what the kingdom of God is about.

Now, let’s turn to Revelation. In chapters two and three, we read of Jesus directly challenging the churches. He comforts the afflicted. You who seem weak and powerless, you who suffer in your resistance to Empire—you are on the path to victory. God is with you. And, Jesus afflicts the comfortable. You who revel in your prosperity and comfort don’t know the first thing about God. It’s as if you are being spit out like lukewarm water.

Then John, the seer, is transported to a vision of the throne of God—worship, praise, all of creation united in the presence of the divine. After this, his vision continues, 5:1-10:

“Then, I saw in the right hand of the one seated on the throne a scroll written on the inside and on the back, sealed with seven seals; and I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, ‘Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?’ And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it. And I began to weep bitterly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it. Then one of the elders said to me, ‘Do not weep. See the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.’ Then I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. He went and took the scrolls from the right hand of the one who was seated on the throne. When he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell before the Lamb, each holding a harp and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. They sing a new song: ‘You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation; you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God, and they will reign on earth.’” (Revelation 5:1-10)

The fifth chapter of the book of Revelation begins with a poignant image. After John’s awe-inspiring vision of the throne of God in chapter four, a shadow falls. John sees a scroll in the right hand of the one on the throne. This scroll, which John pleads to have opened, contains history fulfilled, the completion of the human project.

John sees the scroll but is overcome with grief at the thought that it may not be opened. Who can open the scroll? “No one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it” (5:3).

This account provides us with a metaphor that speaks to much of human history. How can history be redeemed? How can the human project be redirected from brokenness and alienation toward healing and wholeness? How can evil be defeated?

Much, most, maybe even just about all of our work links with this question. How can history be redeemed? We seek to exercise power, to influence our environment, in ways that are creative, fruitful, and constructive. So the question of power is a basic human issue. We all struggle with the question, how is the scroll of the redemption of history to be opened? What kind of power serves the outcomes we desire? In other words, how do we win?

This is certainly the question faced by western civilization in the late 1930s—what Nicholson Baker writes about in Human Smoke. But we face the question on many smaller scales—how do we make our kids “turn out right?” How do we deal with opponents? How do we strive to get our way when things matter to us?

We tend to think of power in terms of the ability to control events. Power is the ability to force others to do our will even if that means coercing them. Political power is often linked with the ability to use violence. We most likely answer the question of how to open the scroll by saying we need to “force” it open, to open it by our firepower.

However, we should wonder how effective coercive strategies are. Does relying on power-as-domination actually move history in a redemptive direction? Genuine problems do require responses – but have these responses, insofar as they are based on assumptions about power requiring the use of violent force, been successful in creating genuine wholeness and resolution?

This is the bigger question Human Smoke begins to raise. We Americans must seriously ask—in light of Abu Graib, in light of Guantanamo Bay, in light of our country outspending the rest on the world combined on military goods—did the spirit of Nazism not actually win World War II?

Is it possible that the kinds of power that human beings have exerted in trying to “open the scroll” have not been the power needed to move history along toward authentic fulfillment of the human project?

At first, in Revelation five, John, like most people, seems to assume the scroll will be opened by firepower, power as domination. He weeps bitterly when he thinks no one can be found to open the scroll.

However, John then hears an audacious claim. One of the elders immediately comforts John. “Do not weep. See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals” (5:4). These images evoke a mighty warrior king who will open the scroll with the use of force.

John’s vision continues, though, with a shockingly different claim. He may have heard the promise of a warrior king to open the scroll, but he actually sees something altogether different. “Then I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. He went and took the scroll from the right hand of the one who was seated on the throne. When he had taken the scroll, the four creatures and the twenty-four elders fell before the Lamb” (5:6-8).

According to the next few verses, the creatures and elders, and ultimately the rest of creation, worship the Lamb. The Lamb is the one who has the power to open the scroll. And what kind of power is this? Lambs are creatures that are inherently vulnerable. This Lamb’s power is nothing more (and nothing less) than vulnerable love.

This is the power of the Austrian postman Franz Jagerstatter who refused to fight for the Nazis—was executed but whose witness lives on.

This is the power of Magda Trocmé, of André Trocmé, of the people of the French village of Le Chambon who nonviolently saved the lives of over 5,000 Jewish refugees between 1942 and 1944.

This is the power of Clarence Pickett, of Rufus Jones, of other peace workers who are the closest thing to heroes in Nicholson Baker’s book. These are the words of Baker’s final paragraph: “I dedicate this book to the memory of Clarence Pickett and other American and British pacifists. They’ve never really gotten their due. They tried to save Jewish refugees, feed Europe, reconcile the United States and Japan, and stop the war from happening. They failed, but they were right.” (474)

How does this claim for the power of the Lamb correspond with our culture’s assumption that power-as-domination is the only way to address the huge problems of human history?

Christians, in John’s view, must choose: give your ultimate loyalty to the “divine” Empire that wins through violence, or follow the Lamb and give your ultimate loyalty to the God of peace.

John feared that Christians’ acceptance of the Empire’s version of reality would actually separate them from the God of Jesus. The Empire depends upon violence and coercion as its bases for authority. The Empire’s commerce rests on oppression, even trafficking in the exploitation of human souls (18:13). The Empire murders authentic prophets and saints (18:24).

John writes to encourage the actual communities of chapters two and three. And his message is not simply, hang on tight for a short time, the end of history will soon come. Rather, John calls his readers to sustain their faith over time. The slain Lamb stands victorious in the present. So, walk faithfully with the one who already has won. The triumph of the Lamb tells the congregations this: their persevering love fits completely with the true power of the one seated on the throne.

Follow the Lamb wherever he goes. Live in the Lamb’s community right now; his type of power is authentic. Turn from the trust in coercive power. In doing so, you will actually play a crucial role in God’s work of transforming the nations.

The fruit of faithfulness in following the Lamb is genuine “victory.” This victory contributes to the destruction of the powers of evil (the Dragon, the Beast, the False Prophet). And, this victory contributes to the healing of the nations and the transformation of the kings of the earth.

The power embraced in Revelation is much, much bigger than simply the power to destroy or coerce. It is actually the power to heal.

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