Living in Apocalyptic Times—Ted Grimsrud
Shalom Mennonite Congregation—Harrisonburg, VA
This morning I will offer the first installment of a series of sermons on the book of Revelation. I intend to suggest a few reasons why I believe that paying attention to Revelation might be a useful thing. I will start by reading from three different parts of Revelation. Then, I will take a few moments for you to comment on your general impression of Revelation. Then I will explain why I like Revelation.
The first passage comes from chapter five. This comes after chapter four tells of John’s vision of the great throne and creation’s worship of the Creator, the one seated on the throne.
“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 an angel proclaim, ‘Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?’ When no one in heaven or on earth was able to open the scroll or look into it, I began to weep bitterly. 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 among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered. He went and took the scroll. Then the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell before the Lamb, and sang a new song: ‘You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slaughtered and by your blood you freed 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.’”
Starting in chapter six, we hear about what John sees happening when the Lamb begins to break the seals to the scroll—plagues and trauma, mixed with scenes of worship and praise. We don’t get to the actual contents of the scroll until the end of the book, but the process of getting there (according to John’s visions) will be pretty rocky.
The severity of the trauma finds expression in some intense visions, including this one from chapter thirteen:
“I saw a beast rise out of the sea, having ten horns and seven heads; and on its horns were ten diadems, and on its heads were blasphemous names. And the dragon [that is, the Devil] gave the beast his power and great authority. In amazement the whole earth followed the beast. They worshiped the beast, saying, ‘Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?’
“Then I saw another beast rise out of the earth; it had two horns like a lamb and it spoke like a dragon. It exercises all the authority of the first beast on its behalf, and it makes the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast. It deceives the inhabitants of the earth, telling them to make an image for the beast; and it caused those who would not worship the beast to be killed.
“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. They sing a new song before the throne. These follow the Lamb wherever he goes. They have been redeemed from humankind, and in their mouth no lie was found.”
The following chapters make clear that the main results of the plagues and traumas are the judgment and ultimate destruction of the forces of evil—the dragon, the beast, the false prophet, the rebellious city Babylon. Then, after all that, the contents of the scroll are revealed:
“I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home of God is among human beings. God will dwell with them as their God; they will be God’s peoples. God will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.’
“I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood.”
Let’s take some time for comments. Just off the top your head, what do you think of Revelation? Or, maybe, what do you think of when you think of Revelation?
Let me tell you a bit of what I think. I will begin with a couple of stories.
In our first several years living in Harrisonburg, Kathleen, Johan and I attended Park View Mennonite Church. Park View, of course, has quite a few older people who have been part of the congregation and the larger Mennonite community around EMU for many years.
When it became known that I had written a book on Revelation, I was asked to lead several Sunday School classes. Something I heard surprised me. People my age and younger said they actually knew nothing about Revelation. Especially those who had grown up in the area said they never heard sermons or had Bible studies on Revelation.
As it turns out, in the 1950s, the Book of Revelation and issues related to beliefs about the Millennium and the Last Days were controversial around Eastern Mennonite College. The discussions became so heated that, in good Mennonite fashion, people decided to quit talking about the subject. This moratorium was so effective that several generations of Mennonites in this community grew up without exposure to Revelation.
My second story. In the late 1970s, I was a young adult actively involved in a small nondenominational church in Eugene, Oregon. Several of us had become interested in peace theology. As we talked about our beliefs, we faced some opposition. Our controversies led to a formal debate.
The big fallout from this debate for me came as a result of the spokesperson for the non-pacifist view. He argued that although Jesus of course did teach about being peaceable, his views are only part of the biblical mix. The Old Testament and the Book of Revelation bracket Jesus’ teachings with a portrayal of God as a warrior who at times wants people of faith to take up arms. By now, I had come to understand the Old Testament as being pro-peace. But what about the Book of Revelation? Did I have to choose between either being a pacifist or accepting the Book of Revelation as part of scripture? I resisted that choice in my heart—but I wasn’t sure I could give reasons for saying that Revelation did not contradict Christian pacifism.
I think of a quote: when faced with the choice between changing one’s mind or proving that one doesn’t have to, most of us get to work on the proof….So that’s what I did. I began to study Revelation. I soon saw that Revelation indeed does support Christian pacifism. And I didn’t have to twist the meaning of Revelation to see it this way.
I now believe that when we ignore Revelation we deprive ourselves of a text that illumines Jesus’ way of peace.
Our first clue comes in the opening five words of the book: “The revelation of Jesus Christ.” This book presents itself as a message from Jesus—the same Jesus who taught love your enemies and offered words of forgiveness toward those who executed him, the same Jesus who taught don’t lord it over others in the way the leaders of the Roman Empire do, the same Jesus who himself showed that authentic power express itself in washing the feet of others.
The basic outline for the entire book is given in verse five of the first chapter: Jesus is the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. The faithful witness—the one who lived the faithful life of God’s healing love and who remained faithful even to death as a martyr (the Greek word for martyr is the same as witness).
The firstborn of the dead—the one who God vindicated; the powers could not defeat God’s love—God raised Jesus from the dead. And the ruler of the kings of the earth—this is Revelation’s core affirmation: trust in Jesus, the true Lord; do not trust in human empires and emperors.
We next read that this Jesus is present with the seven churches to whom the book is written. Jesus reminds the churches of the true faithfulness in suffering love. The tiny, persecuted congregations of Philadelphia and Smyrna embody this love. The idea that the Jesus of Revelation would ever call upon his followers to kill others is contradicted by how the word “conquer” is used here. The “conquerors” follow Jesus in responding to violence with love—they witness to Jesus’ way by their willingness to suffer to the way of peace in a violent society.
Revelation gives a choice—conquer like the Beast, use the sword, and separate yourself from God. Or conquer like the Lamb, follow his way of suffering love, and find yourself united with God. The book from start to finish confronts its readers with this choice. The book asks: which portrayal of reality do we trust? That which comes from the Roman Empire, the wealthy merchants, the large, successful, prosperous churches? Or that which comes from the suffering servant and his persecuted witnesses, those who, like the church in Philadelphia, “have but little power” (3:8)?
We face this same question still today. We, like the first readers of Revelation, live within the world’s one superpower. We, like the first readers of Revelation, are presented with a view of reality filtered through the interests of the great merchants that can seem like the only truth. Does the Empire, do the merchants, do the wealthy and powerful point toward God’s truth or away from it? In whom do we trust?
Well, in Revelation, the answer is clear. Throughout the book, we see one sharp contrast after another. We are presented with an obvious contrast between the forces of truth and goodness on the one hand and the forces of evil and death on the other hand – the Lamb and the Beast, the Harlot and the Bride, the Lake of Fire and the Tree of Life.
However, for the book’s first readers the contrast in their actual lives was not so obvious. John’s visions tell his readers that they did have important choices to make even in what seem to be unclear circumstances.
His readers might have asked: Surely one need not directly oppose our culture’s expectations that go to the public meetings and celebrate the greatness of our Empire. Surely it only makes sense to express gratitude for the greatest military force in the world and the peace, order, and prosperity that it creates in the face of the forces of chaos and insurrection.
John thunders to his readers: realize what is at stake in your choices of whom you trust. Do you truly trust in God? Or do you trust more in the “divine” emperor? For John, from start to finish, the Lamb deserves our trust, not the Beast.
Revelation sharply contrasts two ways of winning, two understandings of victory. The Beast wins, the Beast conquers with dominating power and force. The Lamb conquers with a suffering, persevering love that refuses to retaliate and match violence with violence.
Chapter five of Revelation captures what is at stake in a nutshell. It portrays a stunning upending of expectations. First, John sees a great scroll coming from God’s great throne.
This scroll it would seem, contains the fulfillment of history, the direction and outcome of the human project. But no one can be found to open it. John weeps in frustration. Then he is told, wait, someone has been found. Then he hears this great scroll-opener described. A Lion, a Messiah, a great King. But what does he see? “A Lamb, standing as if slain.”
The crucified, resurrected Jesus. Our key to understanding this vision lies with getting a sense of what the “Lamb” symbolizes. The most fundamental meaning of the Lamb symbol is one of vulnerability. The “Lamb” conquers with vulnerable love. The Lamb conquers with the willingness to suffer rather than fight back. The Lamb, vulnerable love and all, conquers. This is the conquering that matters. The victory that Revelation celebrates is the victory of Jesus’ faithful, peaceable life, lived to the point of martyrdom, and then vindicated by God. That victory matters—there need be no other.
John’s first century readers were, just like today’s readers are, tempted to misunderstand the nature of conquering that God blesses. In a world where the mighty, the powerful and wealthy have their way, proclaiming in all their arrogance, to quote Babylon in chapter 18: “I rule as a queen; I am no widow, and I will never see grief” (18:8)—in such a world we have to take it on faith that the Lamb’s way is actually the way of truth.
Revelation means to confront us with this reality though. In chapter thirteen, we read of the terrible power of the Beast, the great empire, the world’s one superpower, to whom, it seems, everyone bows down. And part of the Beasts’ seemingly irresistible power finds expression through a second Beast who is the master of propaganda, the one who through its spin, its masterful public relations, convinces everyone, it seems, to worship the Beast, to give the nation their ultimate allegiance. Who can stand against such overwhelming power. Here we have the other kind of “conquering,” through brute force and through irresistible propaganda.
And yet, the call goes out to those who trust in the Lamb. You can resist; you must resist, because of what the vision concludes with. The Beast’s is not the true reality. This is the true reality, according to chapter fourteen: “Then I looked, and there was the Lamb, standing on Mount Zion! And with him were 144,000 who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads” (14:1).
We know who these 144,000 are from an earlier vision in chapter seven—they are the entirety of the people of God. Twelve tribes times twelve apostles times 1,000 (which in the ancient world was a much, much bigger number than it is to us today—so big, really, as to essentially symbolize infinity). These people of God have a simple task, according to 14:4: “Follow the Lamb wherever he goes”—persevering love and its accompanying suffering, with the promise of vindication.
The final contrast I will mention dominates the last five chapters of the book—two parallel visions, the great city of Babylon, the city of the Beast, and the New Jerusalem, the city of the Lamb. Notice a powerful difference. Both of these cities are said to have within them people who in some sense oppose what the city stands for. In Babylon, we read, “was found the blood of prophets and saints, and of all who have been slaughtered on earth” (18:24). Babylon murders its enemies, “conquers” them with violence.
In Jerusalem, we find “the kings of the earth.” These are people throughout the book who symbolize humanity in rebellion toward God. But what happens to the kings of the earth in the New Jerusalem? They walk by the light of the glory of God and the lamp that is the Lamb (21:24). They bring their glory into this city. They are healed by the leaves from the tree of life (22:2). The New Jerusalem heals its enemies, “conquers” them with love.
This is the Lamb’s way of peace. Do resist the Beast. But resist with persevering love. That’s the call of the Book of Revelation to its readers—2,000 years ago and still today.
Because we, too, face choices are at least as difficult to discern as those of the first readers of Revelation. But, still today, the Lamb’s way points toward life—our call, too, is to use the Lamb as our light as we seek to discern in whom to trust.
How do we seek to conquer? In which city will we be at home? Our style of “conquering” shapes us. Our fitness for the New Jerusalem has a lot to do with what kind of people we are seeking to become. The doors to the New Jerusalem, we are told, are always open. God doesn’t force us to go in; God doesn’t force us to stay. The choices we make in our lives right now—conquer through suffering love or through domination—these choices shape us toward one city or the other.
May God’s Spirit empower us truly to see the path the Lamb sets for us—and to walk it.