Trusting God in the Real World—Ted Grimsrud
Shalom Mennonite Congregation—Harrisonburg, VA
Revelation 6:1-8; 7:9-12
I am by disposition a pretty optimistic person. You know, the cup is half full kind of guy. For example, Kathleen and I were driving back from the Baltimore airport fairly late one night. The gas gauge is very close to “E” and we don’t see any gas stations on the freeway. So, we get to Frederick, Maryland, and have a choice. We can turn right, go about two miles out of our way and be sure we won’t run out of gas. Or we can turn left, stay on our route, and hope to find something open before it’s too late. I turn left. After about a mile, Kathleen persuades me to go back to the sure thing. She’s not quite such an optimist.
These are hard times for optimists right now. I have a friend, Phil Stoltzfus, who lives in Minneapolis. During the Republican National Convention last week, he was on the ground working with a peace team that sought to defuse conflicts between protestors and police. He wrote a despairing report about the extreme militarization of the police—coercive, brutal, Homeland Security agents everywhere. And the general population stays silent and we evolve, rapidly, into toward authoritarian national security state….Of course there were many other elements of that convention that could encourage despair, too.
So, I turn to Bruce Cockburn. These words from his song “Child of Wind” challenge me. “Little round planet; In a big universe; Sometimes it looks blessed; Sometimes it looks cursed; Depends on what you look at obviously; But even more it depends on the way that you see.” Now I want very much to see our “little round planet” as blessed. But it’s hard. So, I come to these reflections on Revelation hoping to find help in knowing how to see.
Revelation famously contains numerous visions of death and dismay, various plagues that terrorize and destroy. Many understand these visions as showing how life on earth moves from bad to worse, an unremitting spiral down and down, culminating finally in God’s final judgment with all-consuming fire. But there is another theme here. This theme is the one I’m interested in.
The plagues aren’t the only thing we are shown. Right next to the plagues—often in the same scene, we are given visions of worship and celebration. The message actually is more complicated than simply woe and doom. It’s like when I was a kid and was forced to endure the suffering of eating liver—in order to have the joy of also eating a piece of bacon.
Why does John the Seer report both kinds of visions? I think John gives us these two kinds of visions together in order to challenge us to choose how we want to live our lives. Revelation pushes us to an ethical commitment. It concludes with two larger visions, side-by-side, of two cities—Babylon and the New Jerusalem. The book concludes with a choice: within which city will we be at home? To which city will we give our loyalty? This is what John cares about.
So, let’s look at two earlier visions—one of plagues and one of celebration. I think John wants us to see both of these visions as, in some sense, true to life. Our issue is, which is more true to life? Which vision better describes the world we live in?
First, some famous images from Revelation 6:1-8. John has just reported on the victorious Lamb in chapter five. The Lamb remained committed to the way of love even in the face of the crucifying violence of the Empire. He thereby showed his worth to open the great scroll held in God’s right hand. These verses come next, the four horsemen of the apocalypse. The Lamb opens the seals and the riders of war, famine, pestilence, and death ride forth.
This is one picture of reality—wars and rumors of wars, widespread hunger and disease. Death riding abroad on a pale green horse.
And then vision two, from 7:9-12. Earlier in this chapter, John hears of those “who were sealed” with the mark of “the servants of our God…on their foreheads” (7:3). Then he hears of 144,000 who were sealed, 12,000 from each of Israel’s twelve tribes. But this is what John sees: “A great multitude that no one could count, from every tribe and from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” And they worship.
Before we reflect more on these two visions, we need to take note of a few things. It may seem a bit alarming to read of the plagues coming forth when the Lamb begins to open the scroll. This is one of those pictures that has bamboozled interpreters for ages. Well, the plagues have to do with the opening of the scrolls—they are not the content of the inside of the scroll. That content has to do with the New Jerusalem and the end of wars and rumors of wars.
The plagues themselves, we learn later, do not come from the Lamb but from the Dragon, they actually are acts of rebellion against God. The plagues symbolize human history under the sway of the myth of redemptive violence, human history under the sway of people age after age worshiping the great empires, human history under the sway of human fear and arrogance.
The Lamb opening the seals symbolizes how the Lamb’s way makes it clear that the wars and rumors of war are always tools of evil. It’s like Nicholson Baker’s book, Human Smoke. He simply describes, without comment, the events prior to and in the early years of World War II. But in doing so, he helps us clearly see how using evil to combat evil only furthered the evil.
Our second vision underscores that the methods of violence do not conquer the Lamb’s followers. The 144,000 here, those sealed by God, make up another of the great—and bamboozling—symbols in the book. About one hundred years ago, this number was taken very literally by the Jehovah’s Witnesses. They read Revelation as predicting future events. They claimed that they were the true believers that God was raising up in the last days. Once their number reached 144,000, the end would come. Ironically, their interpretation was refuted by their own success. They attracted so many people who wanted to be part of the elect few that they expanded way beyond 144,000. So, of course, their interpretation of this number changed….
Back in chapter five, we had a dramatic upturning of expectations. John hears about something and then sees the true meaning of what was heard. Who could open the scroll? John hears mighty king, an all-powerful warrior—then John sees a slain and resurrected Lamb. This lamb is indeed a victorious warrior, but his victory happened through persevering love, not through the power of the sword.
Here in chapter seven, John hears 144,000, sealed from each of Israel’s twelve tribes. The chosen people protected by their God. But then, he sees an uncounted multitude from all nations, redeemed by their God. I think this is a great illustration of the promise from Genesis 12. There, God chooses Abraham and Sarah, and they parent a chosen people, the children of Israel. They are chosen, though, so that all the families of the earth be blessed. God channels the message of healing love through God’s chosen people—in order to lead to a countless multitude from all the peoples of the world who find healing.
So, which of these two visions is more real? What is more truthful, the wars and rumors of war, famines and widespread disease and poverty? Or the multitudes worshiping God and the Lamb?
Is our glass half full or half empty? Is life on earth nasty, brutish, and short—or an occasion for celebration and joy? Are we simply hanging on, waiting amidst this valley of tears for God’s rescue to the great beyond—or are we engaged in the exciting and fulfilling work of joining God in establishing God’s kingdom here on earth as it is in heaven?
Well, we must admit that we have strong evidence either way. Sometimes the world looks blessed—and sometimes cursed. When haven’t some people somewhere been under the curse of war and poverty, death visiting too soon? These plague visions simply describe the way things have been and are. They don’t point to something new and different to come at the end of time; they simply portray how life too often is.
The question is, though, do these plague visions describe the ultimate arc of all human history? If we think we likely are doomed—how will we likely live? Well, probably, we will be pretty afraid. We will seek avenues of escape, or options for security. If the Empire comes along and offers “peace,” even if it is peace based on the power of the sword, we will find it pretty attractive. If the world is bursting with violence and death anyhow, it’s better to be on the side with the greatest firepower. If we can find a religious system that offers safety in an otherworldly heaven (and leave this broken world to its own devices), then we may well want to join it.
However, John reveals that either giving our loyalty to the Empire or opting for comfort, avoidance, and escape, all lead to spiritual death. The message of Revelation points in a different direction.
Throughout the book we find images and visions of joy and victory in the past tense and in the present tense. Jesus has been vindicated by God and defeated the powers of death and evil. Jesus is the ruler of king on earth. The countless multitudes worship in John’s presence. The rider comes forth to the “battle of Armageddon” already the victor.
Is this believable for us? Is it imaginable that God is involved in healing our present world? What do we make of this vision in Revelation seven of the multitudes worshiping God?
Remember the famous story of the prophet Elijah (1 Kings 19). Elijah was driven to despair in the pain of his resistance to the Domination System of his day. Israel’s King Ahab turned people to the worship of the war-God Baal. Many of Elijah’s fellow-resisters were killed, and he fled for his life to the mountains. There he sought death. But an angel visits and stays his hand. Then Elijah encounters God, who demands, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” Elijah answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away. I’m finished.”
Well, God won’t hear of Elijah’s despair. You may not know it, God says, but there are 7,000 more in Israel who have not bowed to Baal. Go on back and get to work. Elijah relents and heads back. Right away he is given an apprentice, Elisha. They lead the resistance to the System—not with great success, but with enough success to keep the promise alive.
John’s message in Revelation points in the same direction. Of the seven churches he writes to, only two stand strong—and both are small, both are under fire, both struggle to hang on. So John speaks words of comfort and challenge.
Yes, the plagues fall—and the Beast exploits them to further his power. The Beast corrupts the loyalties of many in the churches and in the synagogues. But there is more to reality. As you follow the Lamb—worshiping and celebrating as you go—know that you indeed are part of creation’s healing.
Which vision of the world is the ultimate truth—the plagues or the celebrations? To which do we trust our lives? If we want to say that we will embrace the celebrations, where might we find them? How do we trust God in the real world?
This is what I think. Wherever people are loved. Wherever violence is resisted. Wherever communities join together and say no to material possessiveness, say no to economics of extraction and exploitation, say no to politics of fear and numbness. Wherever life is embraced, we find ultimate reality.
This is the kind of community we want to be here at Shalom. I have quoted my friend Matthew before in sermons. He said, well, the church can be pretty pathetic, but it is about the only place in this society where people gather together to confess that they don’t want to be jerks. And that’s not nothing.
For sure, but the church can be much more than that. It can be a place where we have our imaginations enlivened to see a world of mercy, kindness, acceptance, and justice. And see that this world can be—and is worth giving our lives to cultivate.
And we find such communities outside the church, too. Food co-ops and credit unions. People working for fair trade and just labor practices. Soup kitchens and farmers markets. And many more.
For years, I have drawn inspiration from one of my heroes of faith, Martin Buber, who wrote this in his classic book, I and Thou: “I know nothing of a ‘world’ and of ‘worldly life’ that separate us from God. What is designated that way is life with an alienated It-world, the life of experience and use. Whatever goes out in truth to the world, goes forth to God. Only the person who believes in the world achieves contact with it; and if we commit ourselves we cannot remain godless. Let us love that actual world that never wishes to be annulled; in all the world’s terror, let us dare to embrace it with our spirit’s arms—and our hands will encounter the hands that hold it.”